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A California beach was seized from Black owners in 1924. Their family just got it back

Flowers in support of the Bruce family and George Floyd stand at Bruce's Beach in April in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
Flowers in support of the Bruce family and George Floyd stand at Bruce's Beach in April in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Updated June 29, 2022 at 7:54 PM ET

A plot of beachfront land along the Southern California coast has been returned to the descendants of a married Black couple who lost it to eminent domain nearly a century ago.

Bruce's Beach, a once thriving resort for Black families owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, was seized by the town of Manhattan Beach in 1924 with the stated goal of building a park.

But historical records compiled in a recent report on the incident, which included a raft of complaints from white neighbors at the time, show the land was condemned because its proprietors and patrons were Black.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to return the land to the Bruces' great grandsons.

"This is a day we weren't sure would ever come, the return of our family's property happened thanks to the hard work of many, many people. It means the world to us, and we know how important this is to people across the country," Anthony Bruce, a spokesman for the family, said in a statement.

"But it is also bittersweet. My great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles Bruce sacrificed to open a business that gave Black people a place to gather and socialize, and Manhattan Beach took it from them because of the color of their skin," Bruce added.

The county will lease the land from the Bruce family for $413,000 per year for two years, with the option to buy it later for as much as $20 million. The county's fire department currently uses the area as a lifeguard training facility.

"It is never too late to right a wrong," said Supervisor Janice Hahn. "Bruce's Beach was taken nearly a century ago, but it was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would, almost certainly, be millionaires today if they had been allowed to keep their beachfront property."

The transfer marks the conclusion of an effort to return the land, which was owned by Los Angeles County, to the Bruce family's descendants and make amends for its seizure during the Jim Crow era.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in September allowing the transfer to move ahead.

"I want to apologize to the Bruce family for the injustice that was done to them," Newsom said at the bill signing, according to NBC Los Angeles. "We haven't always had a proud past."

Previous state law required Los Angeles County to use Bruce's Beach for public recreation and prohibited the county from transferring it, but the new law scraps those restrictions.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.