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The guard

A beach town took over the land of a black couple in the 1920s. Now her family could get it back

Los Angeles officials have announced that they will return the precious Manhattan Beach property to Willa’s descendants, and Charles Bruce chief executive Duane Yellow Feather Shepard is a relative of the Bruce family. Photo: Damon Casarez / The Guardian One morning, 69-year-old Duane Yellow Feather Shepard sat on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, steps from one of Southern California’s most pristine beaches. For visitors from all over the world, it is an idyllic stretch of coast and a first-class surfing spot. For Shepard, it’s the place that hides a painful story. His family ancestors – Willa and Charles Bruce – bought the land at the bottom of the hill in 1912 and built a resort that was run for and by black residents. Despite harassment and violence from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, the couple’s business continued, offering African Americans infrequent access to the California beach. Then, in 1924, city officials convicted the neighborhood and moved to confiscate the property. The local council said it needed the property for a park but instead left it empty for decades. “They have been terrorized and left penniless,” Shepard said as joggers ran along the beach in front of him and surfers headed for the water. “We want back what is ours.” Charles and Willa Bruce. Photo: Courtesy of Duane Yellow Feather Shepard There is now a concerted effort to make this transfer a reality nearly 100 years after the seizure. Last week, LA district officials announced an unprecedented legislative push to return precious property to the descendants of Willa and Charles, granting them the wealth they have been denied for generations. “This is a settlement that is long overdue,” said Anthony Bruce, a 38-year-old great-great-grandson, in a phone interview this week from Florida, where he lives. “For me and the following generations, this would mean a legacy – and the inner security of knowing that I come from somewhere, that I come from a people.” But in Manhattan Beach, which is less than 1% black today, correcting these historical mistakes is proving to be an uphill battle. “They covered that story up” Willa Bruce bought her first oceanfront property for $ 1,225. In 1912, the LA Times reported the “great excitement” and “opposition” of white property owners and said they had “caused a storm … by setting up a seaside resort for their race.” Willa told the newspaper, “Wherever we’ve tried to buy land for a beach resort, we’ve been denied it, but I own that land and I will keep it.” An article in the Los Angeles Times dated June 27, 1912 about Bruce’s Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Duane Yellow Feather Shepard The area known as Bruce’s Beach among African Americans was one of several black recreational areas established in the area at the time. “African Americans established themselves because they wanted to enjoy what Southern California has to offer,” said Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, historian and author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Centers during the Jim Crow era. “Having a spot on the beach is an integral part of what the California dream is.” But hate crimes and threats escalated against the Bruces. The KKK lit a fire under a main deck and black visitors had to walk half a mile to reach the beach due to roadblocks on the adjoining property owned by George Peck, a wealthy landowner and contractor, according to the LA Times. In 1924, the city, which was then Manhattan Beach, condemned the Bruces land and other adjoining homes owned by black residents using a significant domain with the stated aim of building a park. After years of litigation, the Bruces who filed for $ 120,000 received $ 14,000. And while a judge said they had the right to return to Manhattan Beach, having lost their wealth and feared the KKK if they returned, Shepard said they couldn’t afford anything. “They were poor and totally devastated,” Shepard said, noting that they moved to the east side of LA and spent the rest of their lives working as cooks in other people’s restaurants. Willa died five years later. “When I learned a hate crime was committed against my family, it was a joke,” said Anthony Bruce, recalling his first visit to the grounds of their stolen land in the 1980s when he was five years old. “It personally felt like it was an attack against me.” Today the county estimates Bruce’s fortune is worth $ 75 million. Anthony’s grandfather, Bernard Bruce, the grandson of Willa and Charles, grew up disturbed by the story: “He was obsessed with it because he knew how much it was worth. He’s been trying to get this land back for most of his life, “said Anthony. Loved ones Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew on the crowded coast of the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Photo from Arthur and Elizabeth Lewis’ LaVera White Private Collection in Living the California Dream: African American Recreation Centers during the 2020 Jim Crow Era by Alison Rose Jefferson. Bernard made progress in 2006 when officials, with the help of the city’s first black councilor, renamed a nearby park to Bruce’s Beach and installed a plaque in honor of Willa and Charles. However, the plaque excludes any mention of the KKK and harassment and shows George Peck, who is believed to be the co-founder of Manhattan Beach, as a benevolent neighbor who “enabled” the Bruces to run a beach for black residents. “George Peck was not the white savior of the black people to start this community,” Jefferson said. “It misrepresents what happened.” Shepard stood at the blackboard and said, “It doesn’t belong here with those lies on it.” Noting that the Bruces should be considered the founders of Manhattan Beach just like Peck, he added, “Manhattan Beach covered up this story for 80 years. That was intentional. “The riots following the assassination of George Floyd last year gave the Bruces and their supporters new impetus. However, progress comes too late for Bernard, who died of Covid-19 in January at the age of 86. “So Many Generations Have Been Injured” The park, now known as Bruce’s Beach, sits on a hill just above the land where the resort family once lived. This property is now a dull LA County owned building and is used as a lifeguard training center. Last Friday, LA and state lawmakers stood before the law to propose a new law to lift the property’s restrictions and allow the county to return it to the Bruces. A plaque on Manhattan Beach showing Charles and Willa Bruce owned a country resort before it was taken away from the city in 1924. Photo: Damon Casarez / The Guardian “I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I am embarrassed. Be honest, I only knew this story last year,” said Janice Hahn, the LA district’s law enforcement agency Guardian. “I grew up swimming in the ocean a few blocks from Bruce’s Beach. When I finally heard this story, I felt like there was nothing I could do but figure out how to return this property.” One possible plan is to return ownership of the property to the family, who could then lease it back to the county, said Shepard, who is a cousin of the direct descendants. The impact of the loss of intergenerational wealth is difficult to calculate, but Shepard said the majority of Bruces are now below the poverty line, noting a great-great-grandson who can’t afford to own a car and still goes to work: “It’s met they are very hard – there are student loans they could have paid back, there are mortgages they may not even have. They would have been multimillionaires. “All of these generations are wrong,” said Anthony. “This will affect my children and the children of their children … and I want them to know that they can get justice from their government.” If successful, Hahn hoped this would be a model for land restitution, including for Japanese Americans, whose property was taken over during World War II, and Indians. Jefferson noted that there are thousands of black families who have suffered like the Bruces, including farmers displaced from their land and homeowners whose neighborhoods have been confiscated for highways. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Shepard, who is also a local and chief of the Pokanoket Nation’s Pocasset Wampanoag tribe. “Black people are still unwanted” As LA leaders move forward, not everyone in the region has provided assistance. Last week, Manhattan Beach City Council, the same entity that took their land a century ago, voted against a token proclamation to apologize to the Bruces, citing concerns that would hold the city liable for future lawsuits. Meanwhile, an anonymous group of residents ran full-page ads in a local newspaper arguing that a “guard mob” had exaggerated the history of racism in Bruce’s Beach and urged the council not to apologize. The property that once belonged to the Bruces is now a lifeguard training center. Photo: Damon Casarez / The Guardian It was all a memory, proponents say, of how racism has persisted in this waterfront community. “That means they don’t even see black people as human beings,” said Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach-based black man who founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach last year to campaign for the return of the land. She said she had experienced racism since moving to town four years ago, including a white resident asking what family she had a nanny for. “I’ve heard so many stories from black people who grew up here and still have scars. They say they will never find a foothold here again because they don’t feel welcome, especially when you are closer to the water. “I’ve heard so many stories from black people who grew up here and are still scarred. Kavon Ward Black surfers have also spoken out about racism in Manhattan Beach, where they say white surfers molested them and labeled them racist slurs. One recent morning, Tagus Ashford stopped at the plaque to snap a picture after hearing about Bruce’s Beach on the news. The Black Oklahoma City resident, who was in town visiting his family, said he wasn’t surprised to learn about the pushback. “People feel uncomfortable when they start claiming what is theirs, especially if it has been stolen or badly gotten. But it’s important that people assert their ancestral rights, “he said, adding that the ongoing racist tensions in Manhattan Beach were palpable to him as soon as he arrived:” You can feel it in the air. “Shepard said he was appalled by the city’s refusal to apologize at all and that his family would be pushing for restitution and damages from Manhattan Beach beyond the return of property from the county. “We still suffer from what their ancestors did. Someone has to correct this injustice, ”he said. “They still benefit from the generational wealth of their ancestors, while we don’t have a cent.”

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