Manhattan Beach Unveils New Bruce’s Beach Landmark
After nearly three years of intense controversy and debate, Manhattan Beach held its own ceremony on Saturday to acknowledge its racist history at Bruce’s Beach — and to mark what city leaders are calling a new chapter in healing.
More than 100 residents, city employees and government officials gathered to reflect on the fact that the city once ran an entire out-of-town black bathing community. In front of a new monument that spelled out this historic injustice, Mayor Steve Napolitano asked the crowd to join him in a moment of silence.
“It’s been a long road – too long – to get here,” said Napolitano, who personally apologized to all of the black families whose properties were seized by the city a century ago – and who called the rest of the city council to do the same. “We are here today to unveil a new plaque, to reconcile our history, to confront some uncomfortable truths, and to acknowledge how far we have come – while acknowledging how far we still have to go.”
As Los Angeles County led the unprecedented charge to return parts of the county-owned land to the Bruce family, the local response on what to do with the rest of the land – which had been turned into a park overlooking the sea – has been the subject of immense criticism.
Much of the city’s efforts focused on how to replace a memorial plaque that had glossed over how and why the land was taken. City leaders have also committed $350,000 to a commemorative art installation that will be the largest art project ever commissioned in Manhattan Beach.
But deliberations over what the new plaque should say have been charged. Critics say the new text still whitewashes the history of Bruce’s Beach, and many have questioned whether the creation of a new monument actually amounts to justice.
“It seems way too little, way too late,” said George Fatheree, a prominent real estate attorney who represented the Bruce family pro bono.
“Where was the city three years ago when the county began the process of returning the land to the Bruce family? What about property taken from other black families that still belongs to the City of Manhattan Beach? he said. “It feels like a performative gesture rather than a serious attempt at restitution and reconciliation.”
The story of Bruce’s Beach resurfaced in 2020, when a call for justice prompted city, county and state officials to take a closer look at what was going on there.
Charles and Willa Bruce had traveled to California in 1912, years after white developers claimed the ancestral lands of the Tongva people and established what is now known as Manhattan Beach.
Willa bought two lots right next to the sand and ran a popular clubhouse that offered a rare welcome to black beachgoers. A few other black families, attracted to this new neighborhood known as Bruce’s Beach, bought and built their own beachfront cottages.
But white neighbors were unhappy with Bruce’s Beach’s growing popularity, and the Ku Klux Klan and local realtors reportedly conspired to harass them. In 1924, city officials finally condemned the entire neighborhood and seized properties owned by blacks, as well as 25 empty lots owned by white speculators. They said there was an urgent need for a public park.
But the properties sat empty for decades. Bruce’s two lots were transferred to the state in 1948 and then to the county in 1995. The other lots, still owned by the City of Manhattan Beach, were eventually turned into parkland.
Recent actions taken by the county and city in response to this story have been a tale of two reckonings: county leaders quickly sought ways to return county-owned parcels to the Bruce family. (That transaction, valued at $20 million, closed last summer in a heartfelt ceremony.)
The response from Manhattan Beach city leaders, meanwhile, has led to one controversy after another. A thorough history report has been made. Written apologies. But some have expressed concern that an apology would expose the city to possible legal action.
While many still take issue with the city’s refusal to formally apologize to the Bruce family, the mayor’s personal apology drew loud cheers on Saturday. The new plaque also notes that “the city’s action at the time was racist and misguided. Today, the City recognizes and condemns these past actions and sympathizes with those whose property has been seized.
The sign also names the other black families whose properties had been condemned: the Prioleaus, the Johnsons, Ms. Patterson and Ms. Sanders.
Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian who documented the history of Bruce’s Beach in her book “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era,” said the city’s new memorial illustrates a better understanding of the history – at least describes the asset seizures in detail – but there are still a number of inaccuracies in the text.
It also erases a key piece of history: Bruce’s Beach shouldn’t be viewed solely as a place with a painful past — it’s also a place where black entrepreneurship flourished and black joy could exist, Jefferson said. . Bruce’s Beach was also a community — a community to be remembered and ultimately rebuilt.
A new monument doesn’t change the fact that Manhattan Beach’s population today remains below 1% black, she said. A monument doesn’t change the fact that beach access still seems inaccessible to many inland communities of color.
“This is a legacy of the hunt for the Bruces and other Manhattan Beach families in the 1920s,” Jefferson said. “What’s Manhattan Beach going to do about this?” … What is the city going to do to encourage more people to to use the beach, to be able to live in the community?”
Kavon Ward, who started the grassroots Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, said instead of spending $350,000 on an art installation, the city could have considered new affordable housing policies. The city could have made the Bruce family feel welcome – maybe even helped them navigate the zoning restrictions of their beachfront property, rather than just leaving it there as a plot for public use only. (Moving to Manhattan Beach was untenable for the Bruces, who decided last month to sell the property back to the county.)
“Everything about housing, education, policing — everything today says it’s the same Manhattan Beach it was 100 years ago,” said Ward, who is now helping five other black families in California. with stories similar to that of The Bruces. “Manhattan Beach still owes a debt to all black families expelled from this community and to all black people they continue to systematically block from taking up space in this community.”
Mitch Ward, who sought to highlight the history of Bruce’s Beach in 2006 after becoming the city’s first black elected official, said he found this passage from the sign particularly offensive: “In addition, twenty-five properties belonging to whites who sat underdeveloped among black-owned properties were also convicted.
“The Bruces have been racially targeted by our government and by racist citizens, and to equate them in any way – especially on a historical marker – with someone who simply had an act, a speculative act , who lived all along. the United States… it is a gross distortion of history,” he said.
But Ward (no relation to Kavon Ward) acknowledged that Bruce’s Beach had in some ways transcended local politics. Visitors from across the county now come to the park to reflect and pay homage to what Ward calls a “national treasure for black people.”
Reaching even that inflection point has been far from easy for Manhattan Beach, but many city residents hoped Saturday’s rally meant the community had finally found a way forward. A page dedicated to the history of Bruce’s Beach now lives permanently on the city’s website, and the city is in the final weeks of accepting proposals for the art installation, which it says should “evoke a sense of peace, healing and community, and provide visitors with an educational opportunity to learn about the history of this region.
“It can’t end there,” said Susan Bales, a longtime resident who said the mayor’s apology was overdue. “The city also needs to look at other aspects of the city’s infrastructure that continue to make it a predominantly white city.”
Bringing this story to life has also led to significant discoveries. Gina Young, who lives in Glendale, said she didn’t know her family had a connection to Bruce’s Beach until 2021 when she saw her great-great-aunt Elizabeth Patterson was one owners whose property had been seized by Manhattan. Beach in the 1920s.
“I felt I needed to be here to support my family,” said Young, who attended Saturday’s ceremony and appreciated the mayor’s apology. “They went through a lot in the 20s and just having me here is a way of honoring that.”
Patricia Bruce-Carter, a distant relative who helped connect many pieces for the direct descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, said the commemoration of this space, even if the text remains imperfect, is still important after nearly a year. century of injury and intentional erasure.
“I feel a sense of pride knowing that this black couple 100 years ago came to California, followed their dream, succeeded and thrived,” she said. “It’s taking much longer than expected…but history continues to correct itself, and I’m happy to say I’m here to witness it.”
Los Angeles Times