You are standing on the sand of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, California. They called it Inkwell Beach – ink like the blackness of the skin of its swimmers. You are standing in the wake of the thick rope floating in California’s Pacific Ocean, which stretches from the property line to the horizon. A barrier, more metaphysical than physical (ropes are easy to swim under), containing black people within the waves of Bruce’s Beach. Apparently black ink can’t spread past a rope floating in the ocean.
The land that became Bruce’s Beach was owned by a Black couple, Willa and Charles Bruce, who bought the property in 1912. 1912 was only 57 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and enslaved people in the United States earned the status of “free.” Unfortunately, freedom is a label that doesn’t possess much significance in America – especially not in 1912. Most things weren’t free at all for Black people, even the beaches. Before the Bruces, there were no beaches in Los Angeles Country that Black people could set foot on.
Bruce’s Beach began as a hot dog and lemonade stand but soon became a popular resort with a restaurant, bar, dance hall, and bathhouse. It was a refuge for Black people to enjoy the beach, the southern California sun, music, and each other’s company; it was a sanctuary for Blackness that was a rarity in the Jim Crow era. Bruce’s Beach nurtured and encouraged a community of Black families to purchase more beach property in the surrounding area and to make their homes on the shoreline of Manhattan. It not only created sunbathing and cocktail drinking, but also brought opportunities for Black Angelenos to become nationwide legends. Nick Gabaldon, known as “the first African American surfer,” is rumored to have surfed the seas of Bruce’s beach. It is said that the waves at Bruce’s weren’t sufficient for Gabaldon, so he paddled on his board all the way to Malibu – 12 miles, stopping along the way for rests. He used Bruce’s to access waves that his (“black ink”) skin would not be granted access by land. Malibu Beach was, unsurprisingly, whites only.
However, the beacon of joy and success that Bruce’s Beach was for the Black Community in Los Angeles did not last long. It was destroyed in 1923 by men in white with a burning cross. The Ku Klux Klan claimed that there was a “negro invasion” taking place on the Manhattan coastline. They held marches, slashed the tires of beachgoers, and burned a mattress under a porch of the main building on the property in an attempt to burn down the resort. Robert Brigham, a student at Fresno State College in the 1950s, wrote his thesis on the racist persecution at Bruce’s Beach and interviewed a board member of the time who stated that the attempted arson “produced lots of smoke, but the only fire was in the eyes of Mrs. Bruce as she greeted the white spectators.”
Then, in 1924, the city of Manhattan, with pressure from the Ku Klux Klan, seized the property from the Bruces (and the other Black homeowners surrounding them) under the pretense that they wanted that strip of land to be turned into a public park. The Bruces fought this in court, which delayed the process for several years, but eventually, white supremacy won and they were forced to sell the land to the city for only $14,500 — almost 5 times less than the $70,000 that the property and thriving resort were actually worth. They went on to work in somebody else’s kitchen. Willa and Charles were robbed not only of tens of thousands of dollars, but also of their community.
In 2021, a century after the land was stolen from their great-great grandparents, the city decided to return the property of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. It is a big step forward for California in not only acknowledging its past but also in creating a start to the distribution of reparations for systemic racism perpetrated by the state. After working hard to reclaim the property that is rightfully theirs, the family has decided to sell it back to LA County for $20 million. Many supporters and advocates for the return of Bruce’s Beach were disappointed in this decision. They dreamed that they would reopen the beach to the Black community and revive the resort legacy of their great-great-grandparents. But they didn’t, because living in the wake of American slavery and Jim Crow can mean sacrifice. Yes, the city returned the property to its rightful owners a century later, but that can never truly make up for the fact that Willa and Charles’s dream was cut short, set aflame by the men in white who conspired with city officials.
There is no going back. Times are different. Willa and Charles passed away a long time ago. Today, the dream of their descendants is a different one, and that’s okay. What the Bruces really left for their children was wealth, wealth that would have been generational if it wasn’t stolen from them. Their great-great-grandchildren finally get to enjoy the benefits of their hard work, as so many grandchildren of white people have done since the beginning of this country. Just yesterday, The Guardian announced that economists have calculated for the California government that they owe more than $800 billion to Black residents in reparations. It is a small price that must be paid for burning, seizing, and destroying thriving Black communities like Bruce’s Beach. No money can ever really make up for the violence and systemic exclusion that this country has put Black people through from the first slave ship to today, but it can certainly help to rebuild what should have been theirs all along.
Bringham, Robert L. “LAND OWNERSHIP AND OCCUPANCY BY NEGROES IN MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIFORNIA: A thesis by Robert L. Brigham.” ScholarWorks, https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/downloads/xk81jm67x. Accessed 29 March 2023.
Chappell, Bill. “Bruce’s Beach will be sold back to LA County for $20 million.” NPR, 4 January 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/01/04/1146879302/bruces-beach-la-county-california. Accessed 27 March 2023.
Karlamangla, Soumya. “The Debate Around Bruce’s Beach.” The New York Times, 9 March 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/us/california-bruces-beach.html. Accessed 29 March 2023.
Moore, Scott. “California’s Novel Attempt at Land Reparations.” The New Yorker, 27 May 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/californias-novel-attempt-at-land-reparations. Accessed 27 March 2023.“Returning Bruce’s Beach: A 100-Year Journey to Justice.” L.A. County C.E.O., https://ceo.lacounty.gov/ardi/bruces-beach/. Accessed 29 March 2023.