How Bruce’s Beach became a beacon in fight against racist policies that stripped black families of land

US

When Duane “Yellow Feather” Shepard was a child, his mother would point out Bruce’s Beach and tell him: “That used to be our people’s land.”

Decades later that small slice of land, nestled next to the Pacific Ocean in the glittering city of Manhattan Beach in California, is finally being returned to his family’s ownership.

And the story of Bruce’s Beach has become a beacon in the fight for justice for generations of black families who were deprived of land and property because of racist policies.

Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach on Thursday, April 8. 2021. Los Angeles County plans to return the prime beachfront property to descendants of a Black couple who built a seaside resort for African Americans but suffered racist harassment and were stripped of it by local city leaders a century ago, a county official said Friday, April 9, 2021. (Dean Musgrove/The Orange County Register via AP)
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Willa and Charles Bruce bought the land in Manhattan Beach in 1912 . Pic: AP

Dozens of families have now come forward to call for similar reparations.

“The scale is massive,” said Kavon Ward, the co-founder of Where Is My Land, which campaigned for Bruce’s Beach to be returned to the descendants of its original owners.

“They left because they were threatened, their lives were threatened, their children’s lives were threatened, and this country has done nothing about that. It’s time now.”

When Willa and Charles Bruce bought the land in Manhattan Beach in 1912, it began a remarkable transformation into a resort that was one of the few places where black families were able to swim in the ocean.

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After resisting years of threats and harassment from locals, the Bruce family saw the land seized by the city.

A campaign led to the passage of a bill, signed into law by California governor Gavin Newsom in September, confirming the seizure was racially motivated and unlawful and ordering its return.

Anthony Bruce holds a bill ...Bruce...s Beach Bill... after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it that would help clear the way for the Los Angeles County to return a piece of Manhattan Beach coastline to the descendants of a Black family who had the land stripped away by the city nearly a century ago, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Manhattan Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)..
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Anthony Bruce, a descendant of the original owners, with California governor Gavin Newsom. Pic: AP

Mr Shepard, a descendant of the Bruce family and chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, said his feelings were mixed.

“First of all, it’s one of anger at what happened to my people at that time. They were traumatised by terrorists who just didn’t want them to be at peace, only for the colour of their skin.

“Now I’m elated that people stepped up, they saw the wrong that was done and overwhelmingly supported our people because this was an injustice that should not have been done.”

It is a view shared by historian Alison Rose Jefferson.

“This particular event is something makes me have optimism, but you can’t have significant movement to change unless there is a systemic thing that goes on and we won’t be able to tell that overnight,” she said.

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She points to the fact that today in Manhattan Beach, home to Bruce’s Beach and one of the wealthiest and exclusive cities in America, black residents make up less than 1% of the population.

As for how many similar cases could emerge, Kavon Ward says it is impossible to know. “If you have legal unjust practices in nearly every state, I would have you think about it, really think about it, what do you think that number would be?”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom Pic Associated Press
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Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law confirming that the seizure of the Bruce family land was wrongful and racially motivated. Pic: AP

Even now the landmark decision to return Bruce’s Beach to the family is facing a legal challenge.

It comes as no surprise to Duane Yellow Feather Shepard. “That’s the story of America, isn’t it?”

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