Everyone everywhere was rooting for the Bruce family to succeed in being the first known beneficiaries of property-based reparations — or at least that’s the way it seemed based on the outpouring of community support and how smooth the required legislative process went.
In the end, the Bruce family saw two parcels of seaside land in Manhattan Beach returned to them last year, more than nine decades after the original Black owners – their ancestors — had the property legally seized for racially motivated reasons.
But now, some people are disappointed that the family has decided to sell the oceanfront property, which Willa and Charles Bruce operated as an African American coastal resort in the early 20th century.
That sale, to Los Angeles County for $20 million, will be official on Monday, Jan. 30.
“I never envisioned it would be sold back to the county,” said Kavon Ward, the community activist who sparked the movement that ultimately led to the county returning the land to the Bruce family. “I just envisioned Charles and Willa’s vision would be realized in some way, shape or form.
“For it to remain what it is already,” she added, “is just horrible to me.”
The decision to sell the land so quickly after getting it back has caused some debate among those who followed the reparations effort closely.
There are folks like Ward, who say the family should have kept the property, honoring the original owners by redeveloping it into a perpetual source of wealth – of the type denied Willa and Charles Bruce. By selling the property, these folks say, they are also hurting the overall fight for equity.
But on the other side, there are those – like the Bruces themselves, as well as other continued supporters – who note that redeveloping the property would be difficult and would put them at the whims of lawmakers once again. The family has to do what’s best for them, they say.
That debate, though, is also illustrative of a larger dilemmatic discussion among social activists and others in communities of color: Do individuals always have to act in the best interests of their communities – and in ways that support ongoing social and political fights – or can they act in their own self-interest if doing so will improve their lives immediately.
While the two aren’t intrinsically exclusive of one another, the debate often seems that way.
“We are conflating a historical perspective with a contemporary reality,” said Eugene Emory, a professor of Psychology at Atlanta’s Emory University. “I have no idea what the reparations amount to in real dollars, but I fully expect they outweigh appeals to a history that in reality is no comparison to a life-changing economic windfall from a source for which they have invested nothing.”
The current owners of the property are Derrick, Marcus, Anthony and Michael Bruce. They are the great-grandson and great-great grandsons, respectively, of entrepreneurs Willa and Charles Bruce.
In the early 20th century, the entrepreneurs operated Bruce’s Beach Lodge, a seaside resort for Black people at a time when African Americans lacked access to the coast.
But in the late 1920s, Manhattan Beach’s leaders used eminent domain to strip them – and others in the area – of their land for racially motivated reasons. Decades later, the city handed the land over to the state, which eventually gave the property to Los Angeles County.
A lifeguard station stands on the land today.
A family reunion in July 2018 at Bruce’s Beach Park — nearby but different from the property Willa and Charles Bruce owned, though that city-owned land was also scooped up via eminent domain — was the initial origin of the effort to reclaim the parcels.
But that effort exploded into a movement when Ward hosted a Juneteenth celebration at the park in 2020, as the nation grappled with rekindled calls to end systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police over Memorial Day weekend.
County and state leaders quickly came on board. A state bill to allow the county to return the land made it through the Legislature with ease, and Gov. Gavin Newsom held a signing ceremony in Manhattan Beach in September 2021.
Then, county officials got to work.
After a complex process – which involved identifying who should inherit the land, doing a tax assessment and striking a short-term lease agreement with the family to keep the lifeguard station going – the county formally gave the deed back to the Bruce family.
It was, according to the family and elected officials, the first example of property-based reparations in the nation.
Under the agreement, the county would rent the land from the Bruces for $413,000 annually for two years. The family could also sell the land back to the county during that time for $20 million.
In late December, the family notified the county that they wanted to sell.
Elected officials publicly backed that decision. The inheritors themselves said the cash infusion would give them financial autonomy – while acknowledging that they can use the experience to help others.
“The money will enable all of us to reach our potential,” Derrick Bruce said previously. “We really want to be able to find ways to grow from this experience and find more opportunities to take action and become more involved with helping and improving other people’s lives; this is definitely a benchmark for us.”
But not everyone, it seems, thought it was the right choice.
When the sale was first announced, many people around the country expressed via social media and elsewhere — including radio programs — that they expected to see the family use the property to build on their ancestors’ legacy, which was cut short.
Ward is among those.
“The wealth is important, but it’s not just the wealth,” Ward said. “It’s how land theft tore apart our communities, our families, deprived us of opportunity, and erased the pride of ownership and success from our history and our narratives.
“I just wonder,” she added, “if the ancestors are looking down in disappointment.”
Out of her Bruce’s Beach activism grew Ward’s “Where Is My Land,” an organization that aims to replicate the Bruce family’s success – helping Black families nationwide pursue their own claims of stolen land.
“Land ownership is a key driver of generational wealth,” Ward said. “Barriers to ownership — including land theft, redlining, and economic disenfranchisement — have resulted in a persistent and pernicious racial wealth gap.”
In the early 20th century, for example, Black Americans owned 16 to 19 million acres of farmland combined and made up 14% of the nation’s farming population, according to Where is My Land. By 2012, those figures were at 3.6 million and 1.6%.
“There are few ideals more American than property rights,” Ward said. “If this nation is to live up to its purported ideals, then land reparations, restoration and restitution are imperative.”
Seeing the Bruces get the land back was a joyous moment for Black folks throughout America, Ward said.
But the sale, she added, is bittersweet.
“The message it sends is that we are acting in siloes, essentially,” Ward said.
“If we’re going to demand reparations and get back what was taken, what we need is to be in unity,” she added. “We need to come together the way we came together to make sure (the Bruces) got the land back.”
Ward’s assessment got sharper still.
The family’s decision to sell the land, Ward said, perpetuates a mentality, which she called “crabs in a barrrerl, that many Black people have kept in order to have successful lives alongside their White counterparts – a mentality she described as, “I got mine, that’s all I’m worried about.”
“This was a selfless fight in the name of Black empowerment and liberation for the Bruces to be able to choose what they wanted to do with the land,” Ward said, “But I’m disappointed they didn’t try to fight to do anything for the people who did everything for them.”
Anthony Bruce, in a statement, acknowledged that disappointment – but also pushed back on criticism over the family’s decision.
“We know that some envisioned that we might hold this piece of land and attempt to reestablish our family’s former enterprise, but we have chosen instead to look to the future,” he said. “We intend to use the proceeds from the sale of the land to invest in our future and our families now.
“We know this decision will not suit everyone,” Anthony Bruce added, “but it is the best step for each of us to take to pursue our individual dreams for our future.”
There are also concerns, however, about what selling the land could mean for the long-term significance of Bruce’s Beach.
The county installed a plaque near the two parcels in July, and Manhattan Beach is working to install a new plaque of its own at Bruce’s Beach Park.
But such commemorations may not be enough, at least according to one expert.
“Without any overwhelming visible presence of African-Americans (there),” said Richard K. Gordon, professor emeritus of African American and minority issues, multiculturalism, race and social justice at Cal State Dominguez Hills, “I imagine that the historical significance of Bruce’s Beach will be short-lived.”
Few people in the region, for example, remember the Inkwell in Santa Monica, Gordon said, even though a plaque commemorates the spot where African American surfers could ride waves in their own space.
Chief Yellowfeather Duane Shepard – a distant Bruce relative who served as the family’s spokesperson and helped do historical research during the effort to get the land back – disagreed with that notion.
The Bruce family made history, he said – and nothing will change that.
“It doesn’t change the fact we were the first ones to get it done,” Shepard said, “and we have a playbook on how to do it not only socially but also legally.”
Anthony Bruce, meanwhile, also stressed that this wasn’t an easy decision. The family spent much of the past seven months mulling their options.
But, he said, instead of trying to rebuild what his ancestors had in the past, they decided to better their own futures.
Ultimately, Anthony Bruce said, the effort it would take to redevelop the land was not worth it.
“Far from the popular beach resort stolen from our ancestors almost a century ago,” he said, “the land we received back from the county last summer is not currently permitted to be developed.
“Developing this land requires the approval of various state and local agencies,” Anthony Bruce added, “including the City of Manhattan Beach, a city which to this day has never made a formal apology for taking our family’s land and destroying our family’s business.”
Indeed, the City Council in April 2021 opted against a formal apology, deciding instead to condemn the actions of Manhattan Beach’s former leaders.
Besides avoiding the years-long process it would take to develop the land, Anthony Bruce said, the family also has little interest in being real estate developers, landlords or taxpayers in Manhattan Beach.
But Anthony Bruce also said that he hopes his family’s triumph isn’t an isolated case.
“The Bruce family may be the first that this has happened to,” he said in his statement.” “However, Lord willing, we will certainly not be the last to receive JUSTICE.”
Ward, meanwhile, said she thinks the Bruces should at least invest in the movement to get other Black people their land back.
“There’s an implied social responsibility,” Ward said. “We have a right to have an expectation for them to do something for the people because the people did it for them.”
To that, Anthony Bruce said, “We’ll see.”
He and the other heirs have yet to decide whether to use their new platform and any proceeds from the sale to help other Black families get back their land.
He does think, though, that his family’s plight set the stage for others to follow in their footsteps.
And his father, Derrick Bruce, did say the day before the county returned the deed that his family has a responsibility to help others.
“I feel now that we have the land back, we need to pay it forward,” Derrick Bruce said previously. “There are oppressed people all over the world (who can, like us,) go from disenfranchised to re-enfranchised.”
In the end, however, selling Bruce’s Beach was in the best interest of the family, Shepard said.
“They’ve been fighting 100 years to get their property back,” Shepard said. “Those helping volunteered; they don’t owe anybody anything except a ‘thank you.’”
“I couldn’t imagine anything else they’d want to do,” he added, “besides whatever they can to repair what’s happened to their family and (build) generational wealth for their future.”
Either way, both sides of the debate said, the family made history – and that legacy will remain.
As for the larger conversation about community-versus-individual needs – the one that played out when the Bruce family decided to sell the two parcels – that debate seems unlikely to end soon.
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