The Manhattan Beach City Council last week took its initial concrete steps toward rectifying what has become an ongoing community concern: Making amends for past racism against the town’s early Black residents.
After hearing a staff presentation on the history of Bruce’s Beach – which a Black couple founded in the early part of the 20th century as an African American seaside resort, before Manhattan Beach’s leaders at the time forced them out through eminent domain – the City Council created a task force that will look at various reconciliation efforts.
The city has faced renewed demands this year from many in the community to apologize and make up for Manhattan Beach’s purposeful stripping of Willa and Charles Bruces’ opportunity to build generational wealth, arguments that historical evidence suggests are valid. (The last time the city discussed Bruce’s Beach in such detail was when they rededicated the park after its original founders in 2006.)
So creating a task force on Bruce’s Beach is a potentially significant first step for the city.
And council members, for their part, have said the task force will provide a sincere chance to look at the city’s history.
“This is an opportunity to not just look at our past,” Councilmember Hildy Stern said at the Tuesday, Aug. 18, meeting, “but to make a difference in the lives of those currently” affected by it.
But questions remain.
Will the task force, for example, lead to the concrete steps – such as restitution for Bruce descendants – that the community has demanded? And will the city go far enough and move quickly enough for those who say the Bruces and Manhattan Beach’s Black community have waited for reconciliation for far too long?
Those who launched the movement to have the city address its history said recently that they have their doubts.
“Why are you putting together a task force when we already know what we want?” said Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach resident and co-founder of Anti-Racist Movements around the South Bay. “Why aren’t the Bruces being asked what they want?”
One of those descendants, Duane Shepard, also questioned the need for a task force.
What the city needs to do, he said in a statement, is develop an action plan. That plan, Shepard added, must include a call to Los Angeles County – which technically owns the Bruce’s Beach property – to figure out how to return the land to his family.
What the Bruce descendants don’t want, said Shepard, a family historian, is monetary reparations. Those that have asked for that, he wrote in the statement on his family’s behalf, should stop doing so.
“We want the restoration of our land to us, restitution for the loss of revenue, for the loss of our business and home,” he wrote, “and punitive damages for the (historical) lack of effort by the Manhattan Beach authorities to defend our family against these injustices and almost definite collusion in them.”
Willa Bruce bought her first lot in Manhattan Beach in 1912, the year the city incorporated. She eventually built the seaside resort, becoming a haven for the Black community. More Black people followed her to the city, either to visit Bruce’s Beach Lodge or to build their own homes and businesses.
But through some legal wrangling, Manhattan Beach succeeded in using eminent domain to take the property from the Bruce family, a process that was finalized in 1929.
Last week, the city – via its staff presentation – presented historical evidence that the move had racist intentions.
George Lindsey, one of three realtors in Manhattan Beach in its early days, spearheaded the move to displace the Bruces in 1921.
Some three decades later, Lindsey gave an interview to Manhattan Beach resident Robert Brigham, who ultimately published a thesis on Bruce’s Beach. In that interview, according to the thesis, Lindsey said his motivations were explicitly because he wanted to push Black people out of the city.
And the idea to convert the land into a park was a pretext for doing so, said management analyst Alexandria Latragna, who gave Tuesday’s staff report.
The city didn’t actually want the park, Latragna said, but wanted to get African American families out of town. That part of the story was historically brushed off, she added, with a reference to Bruce’s Beach Lodge on a plaque when the land was called Parque Culican inaccurately noting that “minorities were housed there.”
Revealing that history was important, but, some said, did not go deep enough.
“I think they now have a better rounding of what happened in that time, so I’m glad,” said historian Alison Rose Jefferson, author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”
But, she added, the history was still incomplete.
The report, for example, didn’t speak enough about the accomplishments of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1927, Jefferson said in a letter to the council, which she wrote after watching Tuesday’s meeting.
That year, she added, the NAACP held a “swim-in” protest during which participants were arrested and fined for trespassing on the public beach, for which the city had issued a lease to a white resident who intended to prevent African Americans from accessing the shore.
“The importance of the NAACP’s civil disobedience action was not made clear,” Jefferson, whose book includes a chapter on Bruce’s Beach, wrote, “as one of the precursors to Manhattan Beach officials buying up the shoreline to make sure it would be available for public use.”
This action and its results were important civil rights and beach access-victories, she said, not just for African Americans but also for all Californians.
And while the staff presentation did report on both Lindsey and developer Frank Daugherty’s motivations, with the latter admitting to a local newspaper in 1945 that he wanted Black people out of the city, it failed to mention similar actions of one other prominent Manhattan Beach figure: developer and city co-founder George Peck, who was just as big a part of forcing Black people out of Manhattan Beach, Jefferson said.
Peck, the historian added, placed “no trespassing” signs on the strip of land in front of the Bruces’ property in 1912, forcing African Americans to walk a half mile around his oceanfront parcel to access the beach.
Peck is mentioned prominently and appreciatively on the plaque the city installed at Bruce’s Beach in 2006.
The city should look “at the achievements and issues of racism that the African American pioneers of Manhattan Beach” endured, Jefferson said.
As for how to move the city forward, those who have advocated for reconciliation have already begun pushing Manhattan Beach on the steps it should take — even before the task force has started in earnest.
Ward, who rents her Manhattan Beach home, outlined three actions for the city, for example. They are:
- Restore the land to the Bruces;
- Provide the family restitution of lost business enterprise;
- And give reparations to all Black people via programs that will allow those with low and moderate incomes to own homes in Manhattan Beach.
And Kaitlyn McQuown, a resident who started the petition urging the council to address inequities associated with Bruce’s Beach, agreed.
“When the city pushed out the Bruces, it destroyed opportunities for Black residents to build generational wealth and sent the message loud and clear to Black families that they were not welcome,” McQuown wrote by email. “We must repair that damage by removing barriers for Black homeowners and business owners to move into the community.”
Still, McQuown expressed “cautious optimism” about what the city’s next steps might be.
Any movement forward, she added, should be celebrated — whether it renames landmarks to honor Willa Bruce, creates art installations to tell the history or issues a public apology acknowledging the damage done.
But, McQuown said, those actions will be largely performative without restoration and restitution to the family.
“It is uncomfortable to confront the story of Bruce’s Beach and to understand that our community continues to feel the consequences of the stain of racism in our past,” McQuown wrote. “However, full recognition that those effects still linger is the only way that we can collectively heal.”
City officials, for their part, have said the task force will consider a wide range of options.
Yet, the task force itself is still a work in progress.
The city has yet to determine its full composition – though Councilmembers Hildy Stern and Steve Napolitano will head it up – or specific mission.
The city will flesh that out at its next council meeting, Napolitano said.
“We’ve been presented with a lot of ideas,” Napolitano wrote in an email, “and council is going to discuss the formation and mission of the task force at our next meeting.”
Still, many in the community have already expressed concern about who else the city will place on the task force.
Shepard, for example, noted that last week’s discussion went on for two hours – yet no one suggested that the Bruce family should be consulted, asked to speak on its behalf or be included on any committee.
That, he wrote, further illustrates the city’s unwillingness to effectively resolve the injustices that the Bruce family has incurred.
Ward and Jefferson also said they want to make sure the task force’s membership is well-rounded.
Jefferson has already asked to be on it.
And Ward, for her part, said the city needs to include the people who returned the spotlight to Bruce’s Beach.
“We forced you to have to acknowledge the history,” Ward said. “And now we’re going to have to force you to try to remedy it.”
Napolitano, meanwhile, agreed that the city needs to include as many voices in the discussions as possible – though he admitted there are likely no perfect solutions.
“There are lots of voices and opinions and we’re listening to all of them,” he said. “We can’t pretend we’re going to please everyone on this issue, but it deserves a deliberate, inclusive process.
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