California’s Novel Attempt at Land Reparations

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tags: African American history, California, Los Angeles, reparations, Bruces Beach

More than a hundred years ago, on a stretch of California coast now reminiscent of “Baywatch,” a young Black couple named Charles and Willa Bruce bought the first of two adjacent plots of beachfront property next to some barren dunes in Manhattan Beach, in Los Angeles County. The price was twelve hundred and twenty-five dollars. “Beach culture” didn’t yet exist, and most Americans had no desire to live by the shore. The city was about an hour away from Los Angeles on surface roads, though a light-rail corridor had recently opened, to make the trip a little easier.

Only one other beach in L.A. County welcomed African-Americans at the time—Santa Monica had a segregated patch of sand called the Inkwell—and Black families drove for hours from around Southern California to sunbathe and swim at the Bruces’ property. The Bruces built an overnight lodge and eventually developed a thriving resort. “There was a restaurant on the bottom floor, a dance hall on the top floor. They had a bathhouse next door, then they had a novelty shop . . . and at the bathhouse they rented bathing suits,” Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a descendant of the Bruces who is also a clan chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Nation, told me. Standing at the top of a sloping grass park, on a recent weekday morning, he pointed out locations to me. “Down there on the lifeguard property,” he said, gesturing toward a county-lifeguard headquarters, built in 1967, “that’s where our resort was, right on the Strand.”

A handful of Black homeowners built cottages on neighboring plots, and a community grew throughout the nineteen-tens and early twenties. Over time, Californians figured out that the seaside was a nice place to live. White residents in Manhattan Beach objected to summer and weekend crowds near Bruce’s Lodge, as the Bruces’ property came to be known, and there was talk of a “Negro invasion.” On a stretch of land owned by George Peck, a city founder and real-estate developer, unexplained “No Trespassing” signs appeared, which blocked patrons of Bruce’s Lodge from walking directly down to the beach. “They were fake ‘No Trespassing’ signs,” Shepard said. “They weren’t authorized by the city. George Peck put those up there.”

In 1920, a white real-estate broker named George Lindsey moved to Manhattan Beach and set up an office on the north end of town, near Bruce’s Beach. The following year, he asked the city’s board of trustees to “take measures to discourage colored people from establishing homes” in the area. At first, the board resisted, for fear of looking racist. But, in 1923, Lindsey circulated a petition that called for the city to condemn a rectangle of plots that encompassed Bruce’s Lodge—and most Black homes in Manhattan Beach—for the sake of a public park. (Some plots owned by white families were included in the proposal, but they were undeveloped.)

Meanwhile, the Bruces and other Black residents came under violent attack. Tires were deflated, a house was burned; someone lit a cross on a hill above a Black family’s home. A suspected Ku Klux Klan member even tried to burn the Bruces’ resort. Bob Brigham, a student at Fresno State College in the nineteen-fifties, wrote his graduate thesis on this persecution, and interviewed a member of the board of trustees from the era who remembered an arson attempt. This man “recounted a night in the early 1920s when he followed a siren to Bruce’s Lodge where someone (supposedly a Klansman) had set fire to a mattress under the main building,” Brigham wrote. “This produced lots of smoke, but the only fire was in the eyes of Mrs. Bruce as she greeted the white spectators.”

In 1924, Manhattan Beach’s board of trustees backed Lindsey’s proposal and asked L.A. County to condemn the plots owned by the Bruces and other families. The city also passed an ordinance to acquire the rectangle of land through eminent domain, a rarely used legal power that allows governments to seize private property for public use. The Bruces and other Black landowners tried to block the condemnation through legal means, but the effort failed, and the Bruces eventually demanded seventy thousand dollars for their land and business, plus fifty thousand dollars in damages. The larger proceedings dragged on for years, but by 1927 all landowners in the rectangle were forced to sell and vacate their properties.

The buildings were razed. Charles and Willa Bruce eventually got fourteen thousand and five hundred dollars for their once thriving resort. They moved to what’s now South Los Angeles, where they took jobs cooking in someone else’s restaurant. “They died within seven years,” Shepard said. “Willa was gone in seven years, from the stress—she had just lost her mind. And then, one year later, Charles Bruce passed away.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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