“It’s a scar on a family that will probably never go away even with the returning of the land and restitution, this will always be with this family,” said Chief Duane ‘Yellow Feather’ Shepard, Bruce family spokesman and historian.
Descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce are nearing the end of a nearly century-long fight to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, parcels of land on Manhattan Beach that overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles County, California, worth an estimated $70 million.
Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the beachfront property in 1912 for a little more than $1,200 after relocating from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The couple built a business on the three-acre property, beginning with a hotdog stand, according to Shepard, which catered to African-Americans seeking beach access.
“After about ten years of thriving there as a business, they became very well-to-do people,” said Shepard, but the Bruces’ success did not go unnoticed, as the Ku Klux Klan made regular attempts to harass the Bruce family and Black patrons using their business.
Shepard describes the terror the KKK imposed which included slashing tires of patrons, putting up ten-minute parking signs, no trespassing signs in front of the Bruce business building. “They could have run, but that’s not the constitution of our family, therefore they stood to fight, as you can still see now 97 years later, we are still fighting,” said Shepard.
The final blow came at the hands of the City of Manhattan Beach when they seized the property through eminent domain, claiming they would turn it into a park, but Shepard says, the park was not built until 30 years later. “Our family fought them from 1924 to 1929 and they were asking for $120,000 in restitution,” said Shepard.
The Bruce family left with only $14,000 for their property but lost most of their fortune in legal fees. ,The couple died a few years later, first Charles in 1931 then Willa in 1934.
Following the murder of George Floyd at the height of the racial reckoning, on Juneteenth 2020 social justice activist Kavon Ward learned the history of Bruce Beach and used her resources in organizing and rallying legislative support to help return the land on Manhattan Beach to the Bruce family.
“I want to see the land returned back to the family. … I wanted to move from symbolism to substance,” said Kavon Ward, Founder of Justice for Bruce Beach and Co-Founder of Where Is My Land.
Ward teamed with fellow activist Ashanti Martin to create the Where Is My Land organization, which helps African-Americans organize an effort to reclaim stolen land. The group helps African-Americans across the country organize, research, and provide resources needed to put forth a fighting chance of reclaiming lands taken from their ancestors.
While preparing to help the Bruce family reclaim the property on Manhattan Beach, Ward learned the city of Manhattan Beach no longer owns the land despite their opposition to it being turned over to the family. “They gave it to the state and the state later gave it to the county. That is our saving grace,” said Ward.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn provided her full support in returning the land to the descendants of the Bruce family. In February 2021, Senate Bill 796 was introduced in the California state Legislature, and on Sept. 30, 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law, clearing the way for the land to be returned the Bruce family.
“They would be multimillionaires by now, probably able to help other members of the family and overcome the poverty they are saddled with,” said Shepard.
Attorneys for the Bruce family and Los Angeles County still must work out a plan that will limit the tax burden on the family.
The reclamation of land for the Bruce family is only the beginning for Ward and Martin as they intend to replicate the efforts for Bruce’s Beach for many more African-American families across the country seeking restitution.