Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach activist, was getting her 4-year-old ready for a bath when she heard the news:
A state bill that would pave the way for Los Angeles County to return two parcels of oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach to the descendants of the original Black owners was on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature.
“I stared crying and crying like a baby,” Ward said in an interview on Friday, Sept. 10, a day after the state Senate OK’d the bill. “I was reeling.”
Ward was one of the key figures in an ongoing movement to get justice for Willa and Charles Bruce, who owned and operated a seaside lodge for African Americans during the early part of the 20th century, a time when Black people had limited access to the coast. But then Manhattan Beach leaders at the time used eminent domain to take their property.
The city eventually gave those two parcels to the state, which decades later transferred it to the county. The latter transfer agreement prohibited the county from giving or selling the land to anyone else — which is why the state bill was needed.
Manhattan Beach, meanwhile, still owns a much larger chunk of land it also took over via eminent domain. That land eventually became a park. The area is now named Bruce’s Beach Park.
Ward, Bruce family representative Duane Shepard, county Supervisor Janice Hahn and state Sen. Steven Bradford were among the most influential people in the effort to return the land, which officials say is a first-in-the-nation initiative.
But how did Bruce’s Beach Lodge — the former seaside resort — and its owners go from a footnote in Manhattan Beach history to the subjects of national headlines and, ultimately, a joint state-and-county effort to make amends?
George Floyd and Juneteenth
The genesis of the Bruce’s Beach movement began amid a national reckoning on police brutality and systemic racism.
Ward, like thousands of others across the country, became incensed she saw the video last year of George Floyd, a Black man, being killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis who kneeled on his neck.
A wave of protests took over the country, including in LA County. Even areas with relatively small Black populations saw protesters gather — such as Manhattan Beach.
Ward, who is Black, formed a since-disbanded group composed of moms advocating anti-racism. It was during that period that she learned, through blog posts, about the history of Bruce’s Beach for the first time.
“This happened in the community that I lived in?” Ward asked herself. “How is this OK? I wonder how many other people don’t know about this.”
The answer, it turned out, was a lot.
“I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know the story of Bruce’s Beach until very recently,” Hahn said on Friday. “It was not until the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and the Justice for Bruce’s Beach demonstrations that I began to understand the history and the injustice of what happened.”
Ward eventually formed the group Justice for Bruce’s Beach. But before then, she planned a 2020 Juneteenth celebration at Bruce’s Beach Park.
The purpose of twofold: to celebrate June 19, 1865, the day the last slaves in Texas learned of their freedom and to educate people about the history of the Bruce’s.
At the Juneteenth celebration, a television reporter asked Ward what she would like to see happen with the land.
Ward thought for a moment — and then the answer hit her.
“I’d like to see some policies that would deed this land back to the family,” she responded.
“It just came to me like that,” Ward said on Friday. “I mean, it’s logical. It was theirs. It should still be theirs.”
And so, it appears, it will be soon.
But first, the movement had to pick up steam.
In July 2020, Black South Bay leaders shared their experiences of racism during a virtual roundtable lead by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi.
A month later, Ward’s anti-racism group launched a petition demanding reparations for the Bruce family. A week after that, about 80 people marched from Manhattan Beach City Hall to Bruce’s Beach.
Then, something big happened: Ward’s petition got the attention of the national Black Lives Matter movement — which helped amplify the issue.
Manhattan Beach officials, for their part, moved to act within months of the Juneteenth celebration. In August 2020, the city created a task force to explore reparations, examine the history of Bruce’s Beach and update wording on the Bruce’s Beach Park plaque.
But in September of that year, the City Council pointed something out: The parcels the Bruce family once owned were not under city control. Rather, the county owned that land now.
That also surprised Hahn — and inspired her.
“It was not until my staff and I got a plot map of the area that I realized the property the Bruce’s owned was now owned by the County and I had the ability to do something about it,” Hahn said. “I decided then and there that if I had the power to return the land to the Bruce’s, that is what I would do.”
In February, Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Manhattan Beach, met with Anthony Bruce, the great-great grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce. Then, she met with county lawyers.
“They told me that it had never been done before,” Hahn recalled, “but it was possible.”
So Hahn decided to make it so.
In April, Hahn, Bradford, other elected officials and the Bruce family gathered in Manhattan Beach to announce a joint effort: The supervisors would work up a plan to transfer the two parcels to the Bruce descendants and Bradford would author Senate Bill 796 to allow the county to do so.
“Now is the time for major change,” Bradford said during that announcement, “and the public wants to see justice done — not hollow lip service.”
Shepard, for his part, gave a hopeful message about the initiative and one idea he had for the near future.
“To get possession of our land,” he said during the April announcement, “and have a weeklong family reunion with 3,000 Black Bruces — right here on this beach.”
Bradford introduced the bill a week later.
But then began the often slow process of getting coauthors, tweaking the language and sending the bill through committee.
The state Senate first pass the bill — unanimously in June — and sent it to the Assembly.
Around the same time, the second annual Juneteenth celebration took place at Bruce’s Beach. Hundreds attended. Bruce family members, Ward, Hahn and Bradford all spoke — and touted the effort to return the land.
Shortly after, LA County released the action plan for transferring the parcels, which shows a complex process and lingering questions, including the future of a lifeguard tower that currently sits on the two parcels. More information is set to be released later this year.
Then came September — and a looming deadline. The legislative session was set to end on Friday, Sept. 10, and SB 796 needed to pass by then.
The bill crawled through the relevant Assembly committees before making it to the floor earlier this week. It passed unanimously.
But not before the Assembly added non-substantive amendments. The bill had to go before the Senate once more.
Ward knew the bill could cut it close. She knows how legislative bodies work. She served as a Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Fellow in 2007 for former U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Maryland, after all.
“In my heart, I knew it would happen,” Ward said, “But there’s still this uneasiness.”
After 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 9 — the eve of the legislative session ending — the state Senate OK’d the bill for a second time. SB 796 now awaits Newsom’s signature.
“I just had this tide come over me,” Ward said of that moment. “There was this sense of like spirits speaking to me and saying to me, ‘You did it regardless of all of the road blocks.’”
All told, the effort, to this point, has taken 14 months.
Obstacles remain, however.
And Newsom signing the bill is perhaps the smallest of them.
A June memo from County CEO Fesia Davenport detailed the complex steps required to transfer the land. That memo listed for main issues the county must resolve:
- Land assessment: The county must appraise the two parcels, as well as all the other parcels in Block 5.
- Property tax issues: The land transfer may impose tax burdens on the family and the county is determining how to lessen that load.
- Relocation of the lifeguard training facility: If the Bruce family heirs opt not to lease the land back to the county — which is an option — the LA County Fire Department Lifeguard Training Center would need to be relocated, a process which could take up to two years.
- Lineage determination: The county needs to vet the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce and may hire a third-party law firm todo so.
The CEO’s office and the Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative is scheduled to direct the supervisors about how to proceed with the land transfer sometime before the end of the year.
But Hahn, in a Thursday statement, made clear what her main goal is:
“I am determined,” the supervisor said, “to return Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family.”