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Newsom hands back LA beachfront worth $72m to descendants of black family it was seized from

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California’s Governor Gavin Newsom served some overdue justice on Thursday when he signed a law that returned beachfront property on California’s Manhattan Beach, estimated to be worth $72 million, to the black family that it was seized from in 1924 in a move he hopes is “catalytic”.

Willa and Charles Bruce had purchased the land for $1,225 in 1912 to build Bruce’s Beach, a popular black resort with a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents; but in 1924, the local council seized the land from them after the Ku Klux Klan led protests against the successful beach resort.

Willa and Charles’ descendants have campaigned tirelessly for decades to have the land, now a small park, returned to their family, and the city council finally agreed in April 2021.

The Bruce’s great-great-grandson, Anthony Bruce attended the signing ceremony where Governor Newsom signed the unanimously approved legislation while he admonished the local council for their failure to apologize for the city’s wrongful acquisition of the land nearly a century ago.

(Source: Fox 11 News)

“We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years. And the actions we will take together, to the best of our abilities, in deeds and in words, to reject prejudice and hate and promote respect and inclusion,” The city of Manhattan Beach said in a statement that notably stopped short of any kind of remorse.

Newsom was unhappy with the city’s lackluster half-apology and made it known at the signing ceremony.

“As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family,” Newsom said to the crowd at the signing.

“What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage: Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form,” Newsom stated, adding that he believed the city’s Thursday actions could be “catalytic”.

The Bruce family was impacted by the land’s seizure long past Willa and Charles’ lifetime, though the two original owners did contest the eminent domain order only to lose and receive $14,500 from the city.

Willa and Charles, once successful business owners, worked as chefs for the remainder of their lives.

Anthony Bruce said his grandfather, Bernard, was born a few years after the incident, but spent his life “extremely angry at the world”  and obsessed over the family’s wrongful loss.

“I was five years old when my father told me that my great-great-grandparents’ business on a beautiful stretch of Manhattan Beach had been taken away from them decades earlier,” Anthony Bruce wrote in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times published on Thursday, adding that “It was a shocking and disturbing revelation for me as a young boy.”

The Bruce’s great-great-grandson hopes that this will mark “a new beginning” for the family.

Kavon Ward, the activist who oversaw the efforts to return the beach to the Bruce family, pointed out that they were a prime example of people living the American dream.

“This country always likes to say: ‘You can make it. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps’. These people were doing that, and they were building community and spreading the wealth within the community and enhancing other black people, and it was all stripped away,” Ward said.

“I’ll never know if my family’s business would have grown to rival that of Hilton or Marriott, both of which were founded around the same time as Bruce’s Beach and grew from equally humble beginnings,” Anthony Bruce lamented in his op-ed.

“I have plans to one day soon return to my family’s land. When I go back to that stretch of Manhattan Beach, I won’t think only of the injustice done to my ancestors. I’ll also think of the progress our country has made,” Bruce wrote, providing positive reflection on just how far the country has come in almost 100 years.

Average property prices in Manhattan Beach now reach $2.9 million. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said that the Bruce’s would almost certainly be millionaires today had the land not been seized.

The family will be able to do whatever they want with the plot. Under the legislation, they are exempt from zoning laws that require beachfront property in the city to be ‘used for public recreation and beach purposes in perpetuity.’

The city plans to assess the value of the land being returned to the Bruce’s as well as find a way to lessen the tax burden on the family.

After the state’s acquisition of the property from Manhattan Beach in 1948, the land remained unused for years. It now serves as home to county’s lifeguard training headquarters.

The family has the option to sell the land,  lease it back to the local authority for the market rate, or develop it as they wish.

If they do decide to sell, the legislation prohibits a documentary transfer tax and would shield profits from the sale from taxation.

Duane Shepard, a cousin of the direct Bruce descendants said that what comes next for the family and their plans for the property remain “personal”.

Kay Apfel

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