Over a hundred years ago, on a part of the California coast that is now reminiscent of “Baywatch,” a young black couple named Charles and Willa Bruce purchased the first of two adjacent beachfront lots next to barren dunes in Manhattan. Beach in Los Angeles County. The price was twelve hundred and twenty-five dollars. The “beach culture” did not yet exist and most Americans did not want to live on the shore. The city was about an hour from Los Angeles on surface roads, although a light rail corridor had recently opened, to make the trip a bit easier.
At the time, only one other beach in LA County hosted African Americans – Santa Monica had a separate patch of sand called Inkwell – and black families drove for hours from Southern California to sunbathe. and swim in the property of the Bruces. The Bruces built a lodge for the night and eventually developed a thriving resort town. âThere was a restaurant on the ground floor, a dance hall on the top floor. They had a public bath next door, and then they had a novelty store. . . and at the bathhouse they rented bathing suits, âDuane Yellow Feather Shepard, a descendant of the Bruces who is also chieftain of the Pocasset Wampanoag Nation, told me. Standing at the top of a sloping grassy park one recent weekday morning, he pointed out places to me. âOver there on lifeguard property,â he said, pointing to the county lifeguard headquarters, built in 1967, âthat’s where our station was, right on the Strand.
A handful of black owners built cabins on neighboring plots, and a community grew during the nineteen and early twenties. Over time, Californians have come to realize that the seaside is a great place to live. White Manhattan Beach residents objected to the summer and weekend crowds near Bruce’s Lodge as the Bruces’ property became known and there was talk of a “black invasion.” On an expanse of land owned by George Peck, a city founder and real estate developer, unexplained “No Trespassing” signs appeared, preventing guests at Bruce’s Lodge from walking directly to the beach. âThey were fake ‘No Trespassing’ signs,â Shepard said. âThey weren’t authorized by the city. George Peck put them up there.
In 1920, a white real estate broker named George Lindsey moved to Manhattan Beach and opened an office at the north end of town near Bruce’s Beach. The following year, he called on the city’s board of directors to âtake action to discourage people of color from settlingâ in the area. At first, the council resisted, for fear of appearing racist. But, in 1923, Lindsey circulated a petition asking the city to condemn a rectangle of plots encompassing Bruce’s Lodge – and most of Manhattan Beach’s black houses – for the sake of a public park. (Some plots belonging to white families were included in the proposal, but they were not developed.)
Meanwhile, the Bruces and other black residents have come under heavy attack. The tires were deflated, a house was set on fire; someone lit a cross on a hill above the house of a black family. A suspected member of the Ku Klux Klan even attempted to burn down the Bruces complex. Bob Brigham, a student at Fresno State College in the 1950s, wrote his master’s thesis on this persecution and interviewed a then-board member who recalled an attempted arson. This man “recounted one night in the early 1920s when he followed a mermaid to Bruce’s Lodge where someone (supposedly a Klansman) had set a mattress under the main building on fire,” Brigham wrote. . âIt produced a lot of smoke, but the only fire was in Ms. Bruce’s eyes as she waved to the white onlookers.
In 1924, the Manhattan Beach board of directors backed Lindsey’s proposal and asked LA 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 purposes. The Bruces and other black landowners tried to block the conviction by legal means, but the effort failed and the Bruces ultimately demanded seventy thousand dollars for their land and business, plus fifty thousand dollars in damages. and interest. 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 to the ground. Charles and Willa Bruce finally got fourteen thousand five hundred dollars for their once thriving resort. They moved to what is now South Los Angeles, where they took cooking jobs in someone else’s restaurant. âThey died within seven years,â Shepard said. âWilla was gone in seven years, due to stress – she had just lost her mind. And then, a year later, Charles Bruce passed away.
For decades, the eviction of black families from Manhattan Beach has been largely ignored. The first major effort to investigate this topic was Brigham’s doctoral thesis in 1956. In the eighties, Brigham taught me how to drive a car at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. He was also a history teacher, typing teacher, and wrestling coach, among other roles in school and in the city. He made sure that the Bruces story appeared in a local newspaper every now and then – that’s how I learned about it, as a teenager. I told him about Bruce’s Beach several years ago as an adult and used some of the material in a piece of historical fiction. He passed away in 2019, aged ninety-one, but his colleagues and students remember him as a cheerful, stirring, bifocal character with a knack for asking thorny questions. âHe was a strong advocate for many progressive issues, but an advocate whose soft tone was far more effective than the polarizing rhetoric we commonly hear today,â said Dave Holland, retired English teacher and coach of running at Mira Costa.
Brigham noticed the first clue in Bruces history when he moved to Manhattan Beach, as a boy, in 1939. He remembered walking past the appropriate rectangle of land, which was littered with rubbish. “He told me about it, you know, he was getting on the bus with his mother, on Highland Avenue, after the site,” Mitch Ward, the first and so far the only black mayor in town, who went on to worked to publicize the history of the Bruces mentioned. âAnd he was like, ‘Mom, how come there are so many weeds out there? Everything is overgrown. Why is it vacant? And his mother said to him, ‘Sh-hh, we’re not talking about this. We just don’t talk about that stuff here in Manhattan Beach. “
But, for years, Brigham continued to ask questions about the land. When he began interviewing local residents as a graduate student, city officials eventually built a public park there – three decades after they condemned the buildings it housed – perhaps out of fear that the Bruce’s parents can find land in Brigham’s thesis for trial. The land was classified and planted in 1956. First it was called City Park, but in the sixties it became Bayview Terrace Park, then, in 1974, Parque CuliacÃ¡n, to mark a sister city relationship with CuliacÃ¡n, Mexico.
Brigham, however, wanted the name to reflect the history of the park. He found an ally in Ward, who had grown up in Arkansas before eventually moving to California. âMy office was located south of Sepulveda, just behind Bob’s house. Bob would ride his bicycle and prop up his bicycle in front of my desk and come in, and I thought, this is Bob, you know, âWard recalls. âHe spoke quietly, but he would communicate things. I don’t know how we started talking about Bruce’s Beach. Ward had heard of Brigham’s thesis in the 90s, before meeting Brigham. âI was like a sponge, trying to soak up Manhattan Beach history.â
Ward became mayor in 2006, after three years on city council. In an attempt to rename the park, Ward encountered surprising resistance. âWe learned things about Bruce’s Beach that people just didn’t want to hear,â he said. “So it was extremely difficult for the board to get it passed.” The sister-city relationship had ended in 1989, but some opponents of the proposal argued that CuliacÃ¡n, Mexico, might find the name change “disrespectful.”
Ward narrowly won. A concrete monument with ‘Bruce’s Beach Park’ engraved on it was installed on the grass in 2007, along with a plaque, written by a civic group, which distorted the history of the area and mitigated the racism of the area. city. âIn 1912, Mr. George Peck, one of the co-founders of our community, made possible the development of the beach below this site as Bruce’s Beach, the only Los Angeles County beach resort for everyone. Shepard and other activists objected that Peck had participated in the Bruces ejection effort, even though he had not stopped them from buying the land in 1912.
Ward told me that Peck’s descendants had allies on city council. “You had to give something to some people so that we could get it [winning vote of] 3â2, âhe says. âFor me, it wasn’t about the words on the plaque. It was about the name and recognition of the family. So the argument [now] about the plate, i think it’s a step forward.
The murder of George Floyd last year sparked new pressure for the city to recognize its crimes against the Bruce family. A community organizer named Kavon Ward, who is unrelated to Mitch Ward, hosted a picnic and sit-in at the park. His group, Justice for Bruce’s Beach, demanded the return of the land to the Bruce family, as well as repairs to the town for decades of lost income from the lodge. The appropriate land is a seven thousand square foot slice of open oceanfront property now valued at approximately seventy-five million dollars. The city council created a task force to look into the history of the land, but ultimately decided not to pay reparations to the Bruces descendants for the loss of income in the family business. He admitted and condemned what had happened, but refused to draft a formal apology, which carried additional legal risk, according to sources in the mayor’s office.
Suzanne Hadley, the current mayor, argued that the past, however gruesome, has passed and that cash reparations amount to an “illegal donation of public funds.” (With the current city council, Mitch Ward told me, the effort to change the park’s name would be “doomed.”) However, the city offered three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for an art exhibit. on the Bruces, and also called for a new reformulated plaque in the park. âI know the city is only investing three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for an art show that no one has requested – the family doesn’t want that,â Kavon Ward said. “I find it just ironic enough that they put money into an art show but don’t want to pay the family restitution.”