By Clare Trapasso
Feb 28, 2022
In the early part of the 20th century, Willa and Charles Bruce created an oceanfront oasis for Black families barred from nearby “whites only” beaches. In 1912, they built Bruce’s Beach Lodge, in Manhattan Beach, CA. Just outside of Los Angeles, it had a restaurant and a dance hall.
That didn’t make the Bruces popular with the Ku Klux Klan. After the group and some like-minded townspeople failed to drive them out through a process of systematic harassment—including slashed tires and even arson—the city itself took charge. Manhattan Beach seized the Bruces’ property in 1924 through eminent domain to use as parkland.
The Bruces’ business was razed, and then the land stood vacant for decades. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a park was constructed. City officials feared the Bruce family would sue if the land wasn’t used for what it had ostensibly been seized to create, according to the Los Angles Times.
Finally, in September—nearly a century after the land was taken from the Bruce family—California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a groundbreaking bill to allow the valuable property to be given back to the family’s descendants. It was one of the first times, scholars believe, seized land has been returned to a Black family.
It has sparked the beginnings of a movement in other parts of the U.S. to return to Black families property that was taken through intimidation, fraud, or even eminent domain—a process often used to break up or outright destroy communities of color.
“There’s a lack of general knowledge about the reality of efforts to deprive African Americans of becoming property owners in the first place and taking the property away from African Americans who did achieve that status,” says Thomas W. Mitchell, a property law scholar at Texas A&M University. “It’s hard to remedy something if people don’t know what the problem is.”
Where Is My Land, a national initiative founded off the momentum of the Bruce family getting their property back, now has more than 400 requests from Black families around the country seeking the return of their property or compensation. Co-founder Kavon Ward estimates that about half of those are viable claims with significant evidence of land theft, often in the South or Midwest.
While no official figures exist, it wasn’t uncommon for people of color to be driven off of their land if it suited the purposes of white neighbors or local officials, say experts. Native Americans and other groups have also long suffered this fate, and the problem persists today.
“People should be made aware of this so they can join the fight to get the land back and get restitution,” says Ward, who helped the Bruce family in their fight. “Think about the generational wealth stolen, think about the money they could have made from that business, not just the land. When you lose business, you lose the opportunity to buy more businesses, to buy more land.”
Will more Black families see justice?
While the return of Bruce’s Beach to its former owners has galvanized many others to seek justice, replicating this victory across the U.S. won’t be an easy feat.
Families must prove ownership, which can be difficult if they no longer possess the proper documentation. Prior generations may have been forced to flee the property by racist neighbors or groups and not had time to grab the deed. Or the necessary documentation may have been destroyed or lost over the years.
Some states have statutes of limitations for those who want to go through the courts. Even so, if families can prove that fraud, such as forged signatures on ownership documents, was involved, sometimes their cases can proceed. But even if they present a compelling case, the property may now be owned by another family or business—or it may be of little use to them if a highway runs through it.
“Bruce’s Beach has raised awareness of the injustice done to Black property owners in America,” says Mitchell. However, “Bruce’s Beach is not magically going to unlock similar settlements where scores of families get their properties back in a very short period of time.”
The Bruce family’s land is now worth an estimated $75 million
The push to return Bruce’s Beach was successful, in part, because the land was county-owned and not privately owned. There weren’t sprawling government buildings, businesses, or homes on it. (The county will rent the lifeguard station that now sits on a portion of the property from the Bruce family.) The property is also located in a more politically liberal part of the country where officials were more sympathetic to the cause.
The two parcels of property given back to the Bruce family were worth an estimated $75 million last year, according to the Los Angeles Times. Two blocks from the property, a 4,300-square-foot home is on the market for $10,995,000. Another home, a block away, was sold for $12.99 million in September, according to Realtor.com® data.
Willa and Charles Bruce, who were financially ruined by the seizure, asked for $120,000 for the property a century ago. They were paid just $14,500 and worked the remainder of their days as chefs in other people’s businesses, according to the Los Angeles Times.
And the injustice of what happened at Bruce’s Beach continues to reverberate through the community, particularly in its racial makeup. Just 0.5% of Manhattan Beach’s residents are Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The return of the land “will allow my family to do what countless other American families have done since our country’s founding: inherit property and build family wealth over generations,” wrote Anthony Bruce, whose great-great-grandparents were Willa and Charles Bruce, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “The transfer of the property will provide a significant financial benefit for us while also giving us a sense of closure on a troubling chapter in our family’s history.
“I’ll never know whether 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,” wrote Bruce.
How was land taken from Black Americans?
In 1865, former slaves were famously promised 40 acres and a mule—a promise that the federal government reneged on later that same year. However, despite their challenges, Black Americans acquired around18 million acres of agricultural land between the Civil War and around 1920, says Mitchell. Today, Black Americans own somewhere around 4 million agricultural acres.
After decades of land theft, government-sanctioned redlining, predatory lending practices, eminent domain policies used to obliterate Black communities and promote segregation, and other discriminatory policies, the Black homeownership rate was just 43.1% in the fourth quarter of 2021. That was compared with 74.4% for white households, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“There isn’t any particular land that was more likely to be taken—it was whatever was valuable in that particular situation,” says Alison Rose Jefferson, author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era.”
“There have been many instances where African-American land has been taken through eminent domain or otherwise [simply] because white folks wanted it,” she adds.
There were many underhanded ways that Black Americans lost their property. Sometimes they were driven off their property by the KKK or other white supremacists at the threat of death. Their homes could be burned down or they could be harassed by local police. This sent a message to other Black homeowners.
“The notion was these landowners didn’t know their place,” says Mitchell. “In several extreme cases, it took the form of several African Americans being lynched.”
Once they were gone, those who wanted the property would forge ownership documents, claim the land was abandoned and move onto it, or even say the ownership documents were lost or ruined and have new ones issued. Since the owners were gone, property taxes typically went unpaid, making it easier for others to acquire the area. Often local officials were sympathetic to the new, white owners.
“Folks just squatted on the land and said ‘now it’s ours,’” says Mitchell.
In the 21st century, communities of color were often bulldozed to make way for highways or other public works projects. (White Americans have not been immune to land theft or eminent domain either, particularly lower-income individuals.)
“Black people, generally speaking, are less powerful,” says Jefferson. “They are less likely to be able to hire a lawyer to help them fight whatever is going on.”
More recently, the foreclosure crisis in the 2000s disproportionately hurt Black homeowners who had often been targeted with subprime mortgages. Gentrification also continues to displace communities of color as property values rise as the neighborhood becomes more desirable. That generally results in higher property taxes that longtime homeowners may not be able to afford.
“The taking of African-American property has continued up until the present time,” says Mitchell. “It’s been a pretty steady problem.”
That doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless battle for those seeking justice. Mitchell has seen positive changes and shifting attitudes in recent years.
“History is a struggle, so you’ve got to be in the fight,” he says.