Black family reclaimed their beach and inspired others to fight land theft


Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard is an extended member of the Bruce family of Bruce Beach and currently acts as a representative of their interests. // Bethany Mollenkof for NPR

Duane “Yellow Feather” Shepard stands atop a narrow park that descends to a lifeguard training facility and panoramic views of the Pacific Coast.

“We are looking at a beautiful, beautiful ocean on the horizon,” Shepard said. “It’s blue, serene – it’s calm. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful sight.”

For Shepard, this oceanfront park known as Bruce’s Beach, located in Manhattan Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, has a painful history. “This is the land our family owned,” he says.

Shepard’s ancestors, an African-American couple named Charles and Willa Bruce, owned this land a century ago. The couple built an oceanfront resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge in 1912 and welcomed black beachgoers with a restaurant, dance hall, and changing tents with swimsuits for rent.

But the Bruces were kicked out of Manhattan Beach and forced to shut down their successful resort. Their property was seized by the city, and they lost their fortune. For years, the land belonged to Los Angeles County – until last month, when California passed a law allowing ownership to be transferred to the couple’s descendants.

The landmark Bruce’s Beach case inspires social justice leaders and reparations activists to fight for other black families whose ancestors were also victims of land theft in the United States.

Black resort has been harassed by white neighbors

Shepard, a cousin of the direct descendant of Charles and Willa Bruce, says Bruce’s Beach provided a haven for black clients during Jim Crowe’s time.

“There weren’t a lot of areas where blacks could enter the water along the entire California coast at that time,” Shepard, 70, told NPR. He is a chieftain of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe of the Pokanoket nation.

“[Bruce’s Beach] was a place where people could have social functions, “he says.” You had black artists, actors and actresses, jazz artists, black politicians as well as business owners and socialites. “

However, some white Manhattan Beach residents feared an “invasion” by the African American community, according to local historian Robert L. Brigham’s 1956 master’s thesis at Fresno State. Negro ownership and occupation of land in Manhattan Beach, California. White residents have erected barricades to prevent black bathers from accessing the ocean, and the Ku Klux Klan, active along the California coast, is said to have planned attacks on the resort town of Bruce.

“They punctured tires, they burned mattresses on the compound’s porch, they tried to blow up a gas meter from one of the residents here,” Shepard said. “They ran 24/7 phone campaigns and made threats against Willa and her family.”

The city of Manhattan Beach takes over the resort

In November 1923, a white real estate agent by the name of George H. Lindsey approached the Manhattan Beach board of directors with an option to condemn Bruce’s Beach through the Park and Playground Act of 1909, according to an April 13, 2021 report. Bruce’s Beach Task Force, a resident-led task force appointed by Manhattan Beach City Council last year.

In 1924, Manhattan Beach city officials invoked a prominent estate, claiming the city would build a public park on 30 lots, including the Bruce’s land and four other lots owned by African-American families.

The resort town of Bruce’s Beach was closed and demolished, and the property sat vacant for decades. Willa and Charles Bruce demanded $ 120,000 for the damage and the value of their property, but the city awarded them $ 14,500.

Today, the two plots of land are worth around $ 75 million.

On September 30, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, authorizing the county to return the land to the Bruce family after nearly 100 years.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Directors voted unanimously to initiate the land transfer process. This process will also include the confirmation of Bruce’s legitimate heirs.

“Today we are making history,” Newsom said at the ceremony at Bruce’s Beach. “I’m proud to be here, not just for the descendants of the Bruce family, but for all those families torn apart by racism.”

Black landowners have faced prominent domain abuse for generations

Bruce’s Beach is just one example of land thefts that have taken place across the United States through violence, intimidation and legal maneuvering. For generations, black landowners like Willa and Charles Bruce have been victims of prominent domain abuse and unfair property laws.

“One of the reasons Bruce’s case has garnered so much attention is that it represents the first instance in U.S. history where an African American family or community has been unfairly confiscated his property eventually recovered them, “he added. says Thomas W. Mitchell, property law researcher at Texas A&M University. He worked to reform the discriminatory policies that stripped African Americans of their land.

Mitchell is part of a research team called the Land Loss and Reparations Research Project, which tries to put an economic value on farmland unfairly taken from black farmers over the past hundred years.

“Our research team came up with a preliminary estimate of $ 300 billion,” Mitchell said, noting that it only represents the farmland itself. “We also go further and say that due to the loss of this land, we have lost the possibility of benefiting from land ownership in terms of loans to families to send their children to university, which then has a negative impact on economic mobility. – and these are just black farmers. “

Mitchell estimates the total loss of generational wealth for black Americans across the United States to be in the trillions.

But families like the Bruces whose property was taken generations ago have no legal recourse to reclaim their land, Mitchell says. Restrictions imposed by statute of limitations prevent families from successfully filing complaints.

Mitchell recalls the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when white mobs attempted to destroy what was known as Black Wall Street.

“Yes, there was a state commission. Yes, she wrote a detailed report. Yes, this detailed report has documented huge and gruesome abuses and murders, business fires and property seizures, ”he says. “But it didn’t lead to a dime – it didn’t lead to the return of a single property.”

Bruce’s Beach had a different outcome because the government actually stepped in to right a historic wrong. The California legislature passed a law allowing land to be returned to the Bruce family, making it unique.

“Is the Bruce’s Beach case a recognition that the time has come for true racial justice in this country?” Mitchell asks. “Can this serve as a model for providing effective redress to other African American families who have had their property taken unfairly? We will see.”

Activists try to help other black families reclaim their land

At the signing ceremony in Manhattan Beach, Newsom recognized activist Kavon Ward as the driving force behind the Bruce’s Beach movement. The defense of the Bruce family led to the founding of his organization called Where Is My Land, dedicated to helping black Americans recover stolen land and obtain restitution.

“I informed the [Bruce] family that I would do anything in my power to help them, “Ward, 39, told NPR. their land back.”

Around the same time on the opposite coast in Philadelphia, Pa., Ashanti Martin, 43, was on a similar mission. The two were introduced by a mutual friend – and together, Ward and Martin co-founded Where Is My Land. Both say they are forced to act after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

“I read the story of George Floyd’s ancestor, Hillery Thomas Stewart, who in the late 1800s owned 500 acres of land in North Carolina, and that land was stolen by white farmers.” , said Martin. “I think there is no doubt that if George Floyd’s ancestors had kept this land in their family, the results of his life would have been transformed.”

Through their organization, Martin and Ward are responding to dozens of additional requests from African-American families across the United States, in hopes of reclaiming their land.

“I don’t think we can handle all of this in my lifetime,” Ward said. “It took a long time for the land to be stolen – it didn’t happen overnight. And so getting it back is going to take even longer because there are so many obstacles and roadblocks. on the way. And so the only thing we can do is make sure we’re dealing with this, one family at a time. “

As for the Bruce family, they say they won’t be moving to Manhattan Beach or building on the land now returned to them. Instead, they’ll rent the lifeguard training center in Los Angeles County.

Shepard, their descendant, says recovering Bruce’s Beach was only the first step. Now he says his family will continue to fight for compensation for lost earnings over the past 97 years.

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