It’s time to Break It Down!
As I am wont to do, I have chosen to share a story that resonates with me. It’s about a family who for all practical purposes, had its property taken, nearly a century ago. The family had been threatened and intimidated for years, by residents and Klansmen, before the City of Manhattan Beach took the property, using eminent domain, paying them a fraction of what the beach property was worth. A lot like contemporary instances of law enforcement officers killing unarmed Black men and women, this was a common experience of Black property owners, who owned desirable properties, located across America.
A well-worn figure of speech in popular culture is mi casa es su casa. Roughly, that translates into, my house, is your house, or into, what’s mine is yours. It’s fair to say the City of Manhattan Beach reversed that aphorism in acquiring the property of Charles and Willa Bruce.
The gist of the story is that Charles and Willa, a Black couple, owned a beach resort in Manhattan Beach, a scenic town in Southern California. The Bruce family had a thriving business at the beach that included a dance hall and a lodge. Strict segregation codes at the time, as well as harassment from White neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) expedited a quick and rocky end to the flourishing business. The city’s eminent domain claim ushered in the final blow. Due to the collapse of the business, and the taking of the property, The Bruce family relocated to Los Angeles where they lived an impoverished life, and where they died within 5 years.
Los Angeles County officials have initiated actions to provide justice for the descendants of the Bruce Family for the California dream they had stolen from them. The County officials are working in conjunction with State lawmakers to return the property, estimated to be worth about $75 million, to the family. Janice Hahn, County Supervisor, assessed that, “Generations of their descendants … almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business.”
At the outset of their beach property ownership experience, Bruce’s Beach extended to Black families an environ in which they could enjoy the rich taste of California life. The couple paid $1,225 for the land in 1912. They built several facilities, including a café and changing rooms.
Some of their White neighbors resented the Black beachgoers and the popularity of the resort. White Supremacists and Klan members posted “no trespassing” signs and slashed tires so Black families would avoid the area. The KKK attempted to set the property on fire, and they succeeded in burning down a local Black family’s nearby home, according to county officials.
Hahn shared with reporters that when scare tactics didn’t work, Manhattan Beach resorted to eminent domain. The couple was paid roughly $14,125. The land was left vacant for decades. The property is now a park with a lawn, parking lot and a lifeguard training facility. Manhattan Beach transferred ownership of the property to the state and Los Angeles County in 1995.
Manhattan Beach city officials have acknowledged and condemned what happened, though they stopped short of an apology. They made the following statement:
“The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. The community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion. Today’s residents are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago.”
The population of the city today is less than 1% Black.
Losing Bruce’s Beach was devastating. The family struggled to buy beachfront property elsewhere. As a result, Charles and Willa Bruce moved to South Los Angeles and became laborers, according to family spokesperson Duane Shepard. He added, they suffered “physical, mental, social and emotional stress and died within five years after leaving Manhattan Beach.
Although the bill is not expected to face much opposition at the legislative level, it has been met with resistance from some in the neighborhood. One person who did not give her name expressed her concerns at the county’s news conference on Friday.
“I’ve been lucky enough to live in this beautiful spot for over 50 years. I’ve never been discriminated against by this community, but it hurts me that the people here are trying to spoil what we have here.”
One option the family is considering is leasing the land back to the county. With this option, the Bruce descendants would be landlords and the county would pay rent to use the property to maintain the existing park and lifeguard facility, for example.
Another alternative the descendants are considering is an offer to accept an outright payout from the county, the family spokesperson told CNN. Details of that specific amount have not been disclosed. The family may also elect to simply reclaim the property and do as they wish with developing plans, a move that would require various steps to achieve local officials’ approval.
As state Sen. Steven Bradford, a coauthor of the legislation, noted, the story of Charles and Willa Bruce is not unique in California.
“Black-owned properties experienced tremendous amounts of hatred, harassment, hostility and violence at the hand of the Ku Klux Klan, who cold-bloodedly threatened the Bruces and other families who dared to enjoy their property.”
The details of how this story unfolded, were repeated more times than we know, across this country. It actually appears that this case, unlike too many others, is on its way to a long overdue happy ending. It’s too late for Charles and Willa Bruce. But hopefully, their descendants will reap the benefits of their legacy of foresight, courage, hard work, and diligence. The State of California is poised to make right this god-awful example of…”Su Casa Es Mi Casa…Or Words To That Effect!”
I’m done; holla back!
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