Manhattan Beach May Show the Way on Reparations

It’s difficult to say how all this will end. But on a beach in Southern California, you can see how a process of reparations might begin for descendants of slaves and other Black Americans harmed by centuries of state-sanctioned racism.

Officials in California are debating compensation for descendants of a Black couple who operated a small resort for Black vacationers in Manhattan Beach until the town seized their property in the 1920s. Willa Bruce had purchased a seaside lot in Manhattan Beach in 1912 and was soon advertising a beach club for Black guests.

While her husband, Charles, worked as a dining-car chef for the railroad, Mrs. Bruce built a successful business by the sea. “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused,” Bruce told the Los Angeles Times in 1912, “but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

In the 1920s, a “speculative fever descended onto America’s shores” as entrepreneurs sought to transform sand and sea into fortunes, writes Andrew W. Kahrl in “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.” From the Chesapeake to the Gulf Coast and on to the Pacific, Black entrepreneurs tried to join the fray, developing resort property where Blacks could enjoy a respite from the daily degradations of Jim Crow. Time and again, they were driven off by arson, legal subterfuge or persistent harassment.

Guests at Bruce Beach were similarly harassed. A “No Trespassing” sign was erected by a White property owner, forcing guests to walk half a mile to get to a beach that was directly in front of them. A remarkable graduate thesis, written in 1956 by Robert Brigham, a Manhattan Beach resident, recounts the history. “Coloreds frequently returned from the beach to find that the air had been let out of their automobile tires, according to one report,” says Brigham’s thesis, for which he received a master’s degree in social sciences from Fresno State. “Another indicated that one house was burned and another attempted burned in the early 1920s.”

Still, the guests kept coming, and a handful of other Black investors joined Bruce as property owners. “Since most of the Negroes using the beach were not the inhabitants of the few Negro-owned cottages but rather casual visitors who used the Bruce facilities, it becomes more evident that Bruce’s Lodge probably accelerated the move on the part of Manhattan whites to oust the Negroes, including those who owned cottages,” wrote Brigham, who died in 2019.

An interim report released last week by a City of Manhattan Beach task force confirms Brigham’s suspicions. As early as 1915 — just a few years after Bruce bought her lot — the city clerk was already complaining that it was a drag on neighboring property values. (The report includes a lengthy quote from him, complete with crude language that has only grown more offensive in the century since.)

In 1924, the city filed a lawsuit pursuing condemnation of 30 lots. “Five of these were owned by African American families, including their cottages and the Bruces’ lodge,” the task force report notes. While Bruce and other Black property owners fought the effort to remove them, they eventually lost in court.

The Bruces were compensated $14,500 for their property. Manhattan Beach is gilded real estate now; a recent report by Zillow puts a “typical” home there at $2.64 million. Beachfront costs millions more. Remarkably, a century later, the Bruce land remains in public hands. It features a training center for lifeguards and is owned by Los Angeles County. With no competing private claims on the property, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn has said she is open to remedying an “injustice” by returning the land to descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

The consistent public control of the property would make reparations easier. But the principle that such a transaction advances — that Black Americans deserve compensation for the wrongs they have suffered — applies more broadly. There are countless other instances where Black resort property, including beachfront, was transferred to White investors after White authorities and local racists combined to make it all but impossible for Black investors to stay on the land, let alone profit from it. In many other cases, Blacks were prohibited from purchasing or building to begin with.

“African Americans were trying to manage the discrimination they were experiencing,” said Alison Rose Jefferson, author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era,” while at the same time they were “trying to enjoy the offerings of the region.”

Reparations have been moving in a limited, localized way. The U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering legislation, but its prospects are dim. A move toward reparations by Los Angeles County would be a notable step. If the descendants of the Bruces are owed compensation for their family’s lost paradise, what of other Black Americans whose ancestors were swindled, burned or intimidated out of theirs?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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