A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back

Los Angeles officials have announced an effort to return the valuable Manhattan Beach property to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce

On a recent morning, Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, sat on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, steps away from one of southern California’s most pristine beaches.

To visitors from around the world, it’s an idyllic stretch of coastline and a prime surfing spot. To Shepard, it’s the site that conceals a painful history.

His family’s ancestors – Willa and Charles Bruce – bought the land at the bottom of the hill in 1912 and built a resort run for and by Black residents. Despite harassment and violence from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, the couple’s enterprise endured, providing rare California beach access for African Americans.

Then, in 1924, city officials condemned the neighborhood and moved to seize the property. The local council said it needed the plot for a park, but instead left it vacant for decades.

“They were terrorized and left destitute,” said Shepard, as joggers ran along the beach in front of him and surfers made their way to the water. “We want back what belongs to us.”

Charles and Willa Bruce.
Charles and Willa Bruce. Photograph: Courtesy of Duane Yellow Feather Shepard

There’s now a concerted effort to make that transfer a reality, nearly 100 years after the seizure. Last week, LA county officials announced an unprecedented legislative push to return the valuable property to the descendants of Willa and Charles, which would grant them the wealth they have been denied for generations.

“This is a reckoning that has been long overdue,” Anthony Bruce, a 38-year-old great-great-grandson said in a phone interview this week from Florida, where he lives. “For me and the generations after, this would mean an inheritance – and that internal security of knowing that I come from somewhere, that I come from a people.”

But in Manhattan Beach, which is less than 1% Black today, righting these historical wrongs is proving to be an uphill battle.

‘They covered up this history’

Willa Bruce bought their first plot of land by the ocean for $1,225. The LA Times reported in 1912 on the “great agitation” and “opposition” of white property owners, saying she “created a storm … by establishing a seaside resort for her race”.

Willa told the paper: “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

The area, which became known as Bruce’s Beach among African Americans, was one of a number of Black leisure spots that were formed in the region at that time.Advertisement

“African Americans were establishing themselves, because they wanted to enjoy southern California’s offerings,” said Dr Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and the author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. “Having a place by the beach is a quintessential part of what the California dream is.”

But hate crimes and threats escalated against the Bruces. The KKK started a fire under a main deck, and Black visitors were forced to walk half a mile to reach the beach due to roadblocks set up at the adjacent property of George Peck, a wealthy landowner and developer, according to the LA Times.

In 1924, the city, which by then was called Manhattan Beach, condemned the Bruces’ land and other adjacent homes owned by Black residents, using eminent domain, with the stated goal of building a park. After years of litigation, the Bruces, who had sought $120,000, were given $14,000. And while a judge said they had the right to move back to Manhattan Beach, they couldn’t afford anything after they had lost their wealth and feared the KKK if they returned, said Shepard.

“They were poor and totally devastated,” said Shepard, noting that they moved to the east side of LA and spent the rest of their lives working as cooks in other people’s diners. Willa died five years later.

“Learning that a hate crime was committed against my family, it was jarring,” said Anthony Bruce, recalling his first visit to the site of their stolen land in the 80s when he was five. “It felt personal, like it was an attack against me.”

Today, the county estimates that Bruces’ property is worth $75m.