Bruce’s Beach

On July 20, 2022, the Board of Supervisors returned ownership of Bruce’s Beach to the closest living legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce.

This effort follows a more than year-long process that began in April 2021 when Los Angeles County Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell announced their intention to have Los Angeles County return the beachfront property once owned by Charles and Willa Bruce to their legal heirs. Their property was taken from them by the City of Manhattan Beach in an act motivated by racism and a desire to drive out a successful Black business and its patrons.

History of Bruce’s Beach

In 1912 and 1920, Willa Bruce purchased two lots of land along the Strand in Manhattan Beach. Like many other Americans of African descent, the Bruce family had moved West as part of the Great Migration, seeking opportunities to participate in the promise of the California and American Dream. Shortly after purchasing the land, Charles and Willa Bruce turned the location into a seaside resort called Bruce’s Lodge that welcomed Black beachgoers from all over Los Angeles and beyond. It became colloquially known as “Bruce’s Beach.”

As the resort gained popularity and attracted Black beachgoers, many white residents of the surrounding predominantly white community reacted with hostility and racism.

At the same time, other Black families purchased land plots nearby Bruce’s Beach. Some built vacation homes, establishing the beginning of a modest and diverse community in Manhattan Beach.

In 1924, prompted by a petition from local white real estate agents and other citizens, the Manhattan Beach City Council voted to condemn the Bruce’s resort site and the surrounding land through eminent domain to build a park. It is well documented that the real reason behind the eminent domain process was racially motivated with the intention of bringing an end to the successful Black business and to thwart other African Americans from settling in or developing businesses in Manhattan Beach. City ordinances were also passed prohibiting dressing or undressing in vehicles on the street, public places or in tents, and parking restrictions were implemented to harass and prohibit African American visitation to the Bruce’s Beach shoreline area.

At the time that the Council voted to condemn the land, it also put new laws on the books that prohibited resort-type businesses in that area, effectively prohibiting the Bruce and other Black families from purchasing any additional beachfront property for a resort. In 1929, the court validated the City of Manhattan Beach’s claim to their property through eminent domain and finalized the financial settlement for the land.

The Bruce family moved out of Manhattan Beach in 1927, and the City immediately demolished the Bruce’s Beach resort at that time before the land value question was settled in 1929. No park was built, and the land sat empty for decades. The City of Manhattan Beach finally built a park in 1956 on the land behind the Bruce’s Beach resort and other shoreline property, nearly 30 years later.

Over the years, the park was called by several different names. Manhattan Beach’s first Black councilmember and mayor, Mitch Ward, along with local citizens, led the effort to rename the park Bruce’s Beach in 2007.

Through a series of land transfers between the City of Manhattan Beach, the State of California, and the County of Los Angeles, the County acquired the land that was originally owned by Charles and Willa Bruce in 1995. As a result, the County has the opportunity to rectify the historic injustice that was done to the Bruce family by returning the ownership of the land to its rightful owners, the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, from whom it never should have been taken in an act motivated by racism and a desire to drive out a successful Black business and its patrons.

The Los Angeles County Lifeguard Administration Building currently sits at the site where the Bruce’s resort business once stood a century ago. To the left and right of the Lifeguard facilities are rows and rows of private residences.

We can now begin to right this historic wrong by returning the land that was unjustly taken from the Bruce family so the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce have the opportunity to participate in the California and American Dream that their great-grandparents sought out a century ago.

The fraudulent appropriation of land from private persons in general, and especially on the basis of race, is against the public interest and denies individuals and communities the right to enjoyment, the right to own property alone, as well as in association with others, the right to inherit, and the right to control one’s property.

Government has a responsibility to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all forms and to ensure that all persons are entitled to security against forced removal, harassment, and intimidation by entities who seek to deprive individuals of their rights to self-determination and dignity on the basis of their race.

In righting this historic wrong, the County is acting in the public’s interest to ensure that communities can fairly access justice and an effective remedy, including, when appropriate, the potential return, restitution, resettlement, rehabilitation, or compensation, for unlawful and race-based displacements. The County’s action is an important step in righting this historic wrong. But there is still more to be done to create opportunities now, and in the future, for the descendants of the historical visitors to Bruce’s Beach and ensure they have access to enjoy the Los Angeles County coastline in Manhattan Beach and beyond.

For more information on the history of Bruce’s Beach, see the City of Manhattan Beach’s History Advisory Board Report, researched and assembled by the History Advisory Board with initial research and contributions by the Bruce’s Beach Task Force History Subcommittee. See the book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) by Alison Rose Jefferson, for a robust examination of the one hundred-year legacy and history of Bruce’s Beach and its broader context in the regional and national African American experience and American identity.

Action Steps

On April 20, 2021, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to take the first steps toward returning Bruce’s Beach by instructing the L.A. County Chief Executive Office to develop a plan to return the property and by sponsoring Senate Bill 796 to lift state restrictions on the return of the land.

On October 5, 2021, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted for the L.A. County CEO’s Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion (ARDI) Initiative to follow these steps to return Bruce’s Beach to the rightful owners.

On June 28 2022, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved the transfer of ownership to the Bruce family. The County will pay a yearly lease for use of the land.

On July 20, 2022, the L.A County Board of Supervisors officially returned Bruce’s Beach to the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce. The County will now rent the property and maintain a lifeguard facility.

Lots 8 & 9 of Block 5 of
Peck’s Manhattan Beach Tract

(Commonly known as Bruce’s Beach)

Here is the tract map of Blocks 5 and 12. Block 5, outlined in orange, is owned by the County of Los Angeles, Block 12, outlined in blue, is owned by the City of Manhattan Beach and is the City Park. The highlighted lots were those owned by African Americans. The Bruce family owned lots 8 and 9—the current site of the L.A. County Lifeguard Administration Building—on Block 5.

Bruce Family Heirs

Los Angeles County retained the law firm of Hinojosa & Forer LLP and forensic genealogists American Research Bureau to find the closest living heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce. The County determined that Charles and Willa Bruce’s closest living heirs are their great-grandsons. The confirmation process is detailed in this board memo.

Claimants who participated in the County legal heir determination process have been notified of the County’s determination and are being given an opportunity to provide additional evidence in support of their claim if they believe the County’s determination is incorrect.

Returning the Land

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved the transfer of the property to Bruce Family LLC and the County will lease the land where the L.A. County Lifeguard Administration Building stands.

The County’s Lease Agreement includes the Bruces’ right to require the County to acquire the property within a certain timeframe, and the County’s right to require the Bruces to sell the Property to the County within a certain timeframe, for a purchase price not to exceed $20 million.

The annual rental amount is supported by an economic analysis. The purchase price has been confirmed by appraisals to be equivalent to or less than fair market value.

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