“It’s a scar on a family that will probably never go away, even with the restoration of the land and restitution, this will always be with this family,” Bruce family spokesman and historian Chief Duane ‘Yellow Feather’ Shepard said.
Descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce are nearing the end of a nearly century-long battle to reclaim what is properly theirs: $70 million worth of land on Manhattan Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles County, California.
After relocating from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the seaside property in 1912 for a little more than $1,200. According to Shepard, the pair started their company on the three-acre site with a hotdog stand that catered to African-Americans looking for beach access.
“They became very well-to-do individuals after about ten years of growing there as a business,” Shepard said, but the Bruces’ success did not go unnoticed, as the Ku Klux Klan harassed the Bruce family and Black clientele patronizing their business on a regular basis.
Shepard relates the horror caused by the KKK, which included slashing guests’ tires, posting ten-minute parking notices, and putting up no trespassing posters in front of the Bruce business building. “They might have fled, but that is not our family’s constitution, so they stood to fight, and as you can see, we are still battling 97 years later,” Shepard added.
The ultimate blow came when the City of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to confiscate the property, stating it would be turned into a park, but according to Shepard, the park was not created for another 30 years. “From 1924 through 1929, our family fought them, and they demanded $120,000 in restitution,” Shepard recalled.
The Bruce family only received $14,000 for their land, but they spent the most of their money on legal bills.
Charles died in 1931, and Willa died in 1934, only a few years apart.
Following the assassination of George Floyd during the height of the racial reckoning, social justice activist Kavon Ward learned about the history of Bruce Beach and used her resources to organize and rally legislative support to help the Bruce family reclaim the land on Manhattan Beach on Juneteenth, 2020.
“I want the land to be returned to the family….” “I wanted to move away from symbolism and toward substance,” said Kavon Ward, co-founder of Where Is My Land and founder of Justice for Bruce Beach.
Ward founded the Where Is My Land organization with fellow activist Ashanti Martin, which assists African-Americans in organizing efforts to regain stolen land. The organization assists African-Americans around the country in organizing, researching, and providing resources in order to give themselves a fighting chance of regaining lands seized from their forefathers.
Ward discovered the city of Manhattan Beach no longer owned the land while prepared to assist the Bruce family in reclaiming the property on Manhattan Beach, despite their resistance to it being turned over to the family. “They handed it over to the state, who then handed it over to the county.” Ward explained, “That is our saving grace.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn of Los Angeles County lent her full support to giving the land to the Bruce family’s descendants. Senate Bill 796 was introduced in the California state legislature in February 2021, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law on September 30, 2021, paving the path for the land to be returned to the Bruce family.
“They’d be multimillionaires by now,” Shepard added, “possibly able to help other members of the family and get out of the poverty they’re in.”
Attorneys for the Bruce family and Los Angeles County are still working on a strategy that will reduce the family’s tax burden.
Ward and Martin aim to recreate the work for Bruce’s Beach for many more African-American families seeking reparations across the country since the land reclamation for the Bruce family is merely the beginning.
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