On September 30, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 796, which made it possible for a government entity to return property that had been unjustly taken from Black property owners. At issue was a former Black-owned resort in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County. In 1912, Black entrepreneurs Charles and Willa Bruce opened Bruce’s Beach on two previously undeveloped waterfront lots. Black Americans from California as well as around the country soon flocked to the resort, because it was one of the few beaches in the United States that Black people could legally patronize. Not surprisingly, the white Manhattan Beach community resented the success of Bruce’s Beach. In 1924, the City used eminent domain to force Charles and Willa Bruce and other nearby Black property to sell their beachfront land for a fraction of its value on the pretense that it was needed for a public park.
Last summer, community activist and former Manhattan Beach resident Kavon Ward committed herself to making sure that ownership of the Bruces’ former property would be restored to the family’s heirs. California governor Gavin Newsom has credited Ward as the driving force behind SB 796’s provision to return Bruce’s Beach to its rightful owners. And now, perhaps for the first time in US history, a Black family will get its stolen land back. I recently interviewed Ward about her involvement in the passage of this historic legislation.
—Karlos K. Hill
The Bruces encouraged other Black people to buy property within the community. And, of course, when Black people have something that flourishes, there will be white people who don’t like it. White residents tried to take the resort property using threats and intimidation. Mattresses were set on fire; car tires were flattened; parking meters were set to have a 10-minute limit; and the area in front of the resort was roped off so that guests had to walk half a mile in either direction to get to the water. But Charles and Willa Bruce were not going to allow themselves to be threatened or forced out of their property by racism. They stood firm in ensuring that the beach resort would remain open, especially to Black people, who were denied access nearly anywhere else.
Eventually the city of Manhattan Beach realized that legal means would be required to force the Bruces off their land. Using eminent domain, the City was able to condemn and seize the resort property. I believe the Bruces wanted something like $120,000 to leave, and they were only given $14,000. So they were basically forced out of Manhattan Beach. Reports, of course, will tell you that they weren’t forced out of Manhattan Beach itself, that they were allowed to purchase property anywhere else in the city. But that’s not the case. They had already been threatened. They had already been traumatized by the KKK, racist residents of the community, the Manhattan Beach City Council, and Manhattan Beach police, so there was no way they could feel safe or welcome to stay in Manhattan Beach. So they moved east. They died shortly thereafter. It’s just the saddest story ever.
KH: Can you help us understand the context for the seizure of the Bruces’ property and what happened to it after the city took it? What became of Bruce’s Beach in the decades following urban renewal in Manhattan Beach?
KW: When the city of Manhattan Beach condemned the Bruces’ property, they said it was needed for public use—they wanted to build a park. But the land then sat vacant for 30 years. A park was eventually built in the area, but not directly on the land that Charles and Willa Bruce used to own. The Bruces’ land is now being used as a lifeguard training facility. There isn’t even a memorial there—just a commemorative plaque.
Ownership of the two plots of land on The Strand that once belonged to Charles and Willa Bruce was transferred from the city of Manhattan Beach to the state, and then the state transferred it to the county. So that was our saving grace: Because the county owned the Bruces’ former land, they were able to get it back. Much of the land that is now Bruce’s Beach Park was originally owned by other Black families, and they were pushed off their property, too. One of the families I’ve been trying to help is the Prioleau family. I believe they owned one of the plots of land that became Bruce’s Beach Park.
KH: Can you share a bit about when and how you became involved with Bruce’s Beach?
KW: I became involved shortly after George Floyd was murdered. Someone sent me a blog post about what had happened to the Bruces, but I was so focused on Black people being murdered by police that I initially couldn’t really take it in. But when I got it a second time, I realized that it was something I needed to pay attention to. When I read the post, I immediately felt enraged. I couldn’t believe that I was living in a city where land had once been owned by Black entrepreneurs, and no one really knew about it. Manhattan Beach is an extremely white community, and pretentious and elitist and all of that. It seemed so far-fetched that Black people had owned land there. There was a group I had helped earlier, and we decided to have a picnic at Bruce’s Beach Park on Juneteenth to help inform the community about what had happened to the Bruces—that this land had been owned by Black people and was stolen from them, so that white people could enjoy it. And sadly, when I go to Bruce’s Beach, I don’t feel like I belong there. In spite of how long I have lived in Manhattan Beach, when I get anywhere close to the water, I don’t feel like I belong. Because there’s these stares—you know, like “What are you doing here?” There’s this sense of entitlement, as if they own the waves and the ocean. And unless you consciously tell yourself, “I belong here. I have every right to be here,” it’s easy even for people who don’t live in Manhattan Beach to feel like this is not a place for them.
Moreover, when I looked at the houses built up around the park and on the water, I could see that nearly every house belonged to a white person, and it made me upset. This land was owned by Charles and Willa Bruce. They could have continued earning money from it and bought more property. The whole Manhattan Beach coastline could have been owned by Black people. So that’s how I got involved. Two members of the family, Vivian and Patricia Bruce, came to the picnic, and I remember them saying things like “Thank you so much for doing this” and “I have a cousin who is studying the genealogy.” So I think that in their minds they were thinking about filing a lawsuit in hopes of getting money. But for me, that just didn’t seem like it was enough. Changing the plaque didn’t seem like it was enough. I felt the land itself needed to be returned. For me it was a matter of wanting to see a policy change to get the land and give it back to the family. And every move I made afterward was for that purpose.
KH: They should be scared of you in California! [Laughter]
KW: They probably are.
KH: Considering what has happened with this property that was taken from Black people more than a hundred years ago, I think Bruce’s Beach is one of the most important reparations struggles, and not just in California. Can you help me put this in context for readers? I have read that this is the first time in US history that land that was taken from Black property owners has been returned to them. What do you see as the implications and the historical significance of the recent events surrounding Bruce’s Beach?
KW: Yes, I believe this is the first time in history that land stolen from Black people has been given back. I find myself saying “Wow, I did that.” I, of course, had a lot of help. But the fire I lit is what did it. I knew had that power, even without the money, even without the resources that someone might imagine this would take. I learned that everything I needed was within. So for me, it’s like I have to use this power for other Black people. And that’s why I started Where Is My Land with my cofounder, Ashanti Martin. I didn’t do it to be glorified or to say I wanted to make history. I did it because what happened to the Bruces and these other families was wrong. It happened to my people, and it needs to be made right. I’ve always lived a purpose-driven life. I understand my power and purpose now, and I intend to dedicate the rest of my life to this, to getting people’s land back. Getting justice for Winston Willis in Cleveland, Ohio, is next. Like I said during the press conference with Gavin Newsom, “Cleveland Clinic, we’re coming for you. We know what you did to Winston Willis. We know how you took his lands to build up your hospital. We know what the city of Cleveland did to him.” He had 28 businesses, and now he has nothing. It’s time for them to make amends.
KH: That’s the most powerful statement I’ve heard someone make about why they do what they do in a long time. It flowed out of you so seamlessly: “This is my life’s work. This is what I’m going to do. And not just for Bruce’s Beach but for other communities.” So what do you envision as the next stage in getting justice for other Black families who were unjustly deprived of their land?
KW: Given my background as a lobbyist and in policy and being on the Hill, I see the next stage as policy change on a national level. We’re now in the process of transitioning from a local grassroots movement to a national movement. Where Is My Land focuses on advocacy, research, and technology that helps Black families get their land back. We’re not charging these families for anything. So at the moment we need to build up our funds. If anyone reading this is in support of our efforts, please donate to the cause. On top of that, we’ve encountered a legal roadblock—the statute of limitations. Black folks are not able to get their land back because the time frame during which they could have petitioned to get it back has passed. My main goal, legislatively, is to combat that. There should be no statute of limitations on stolen land.