When Kavon Ward walks onto Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, a wealthy, predominately white coastal enclave in southern California, she keeps her focus on the ocean. Looking elsewhere gets her blood boiling.
“I feel disgusted. When I look straight ahead into the water I am fine, but when I look right or left and see all these big homes owned by white people, I get mad,” she says.
Her anger stems from last year’s movement to return Bruce’s Beach to the heirs of Willa and Charles Bruce. The couple had purchased the property in 1912 as a haven for African Americans barred from swimming at or enjoying seashores designed for whites only. In its heyday, the property included a resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge, with a hotel, beach house, restaurant, and dance hall.
“I just remembered being so angry and so upset [that the property was taken]. I had no plans on being an advocate or anything. I just put it out there: ‘I want the land given back,’” says Ward, who founded Where Is My Land last year, after taking up the cause for Bruce’s Beach. “My spirit told me this is what I was supposed to do. I knew it.”
Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom fulfilled Ward’s wish, by signing a law authorizing Los Angeles County to return the three-acre property to the Bruce family after nearly a century—a first in United States history. And last week, the county agreed to an unprecedented two-year lease with the family, including the option for the county to purchase the property for $2src million.
Bruce’s Beach isn’t the only historically Black beach in America. Dozens dot the East Coast and elsewhere, including Bay Street Beach, known as “The Inkwell,” in Santa Monica, California. South Carolina’s Atlantic Beach, also known as “The Black Pearl,” is the only one in the country to have remained in the hands of African Americans since its founding in the 193srcs.
As Americans head to sandy shores this summer, the story of Bruce’s Beach shines a light on a troubling time in American history, when the government illegally seized properties owned by people of color.
It also offers hope that such properties—worth billions by one estimate—will someday be returned to the descendants of the Black families who purchased them, in some cases, to experience a quintessential summertime holiday, free from racism.
A source of inspiration
The dispute over Bruce’s Beach dates to February 1924. Acting on a petition by disgruntled members of the predominantly white community, the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees illegally condemned the Bruce family property and that of four other Black residents under the guise of creating a public park.
The properties sat vacant until they were turned over to the city in 1929, and then to the state in 1948. It wasn’t until 1956 that the city constructed a park behind Bruce’s Beach resort, according to court documents.
Last fall’s decision to return the property drew national attention. Members of the Bruce family suddenly found themselves in the middle of the media frenzy, with people from across the country reaching out to offer support. Other Black families wanted to pick their brains on how they managed victory, in hopes that they too might regain land taken centuries ago.
On the heels of Black Lives Matter protests and heightened awareness of police brutality, the battle for Bruce’s Beach resonated with people around the world. It also resurfaced racially motivated events, such as the 1921 Tulsa massacre in Oklahoma and the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida.
In many ways, say family members, the amount of attention and the eventual outcome was unimaginable. “It was just amazing how people around the world had zoomed in on what was going on,” says Patricia Bruce Carter, whose grandfather was Charles Bruce’s brother. “I guess because this was a first and everybody’s curiosity was ‘What’s going to happen?’”
A landmark decision
Today, Bruce’s Beach, which currently houses the county’s lifeguard administrative offices, is the second historically Black beach in the U.S. owned by African Americans, after Atlantic Beach.
Late last year, the future of Bruce’s Beach was temporarily threatened, when attorney Joseph J. Ryan challenged the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to return the property, on the grounds that the transfer would be unconstitutional, among other complaints. In a sweeping decision, the Los Angeles County Superior Court in March denied Ryan’s petition.
“When I heard the story [about the history of Bruce’s Beach] it made me angry,” says attorney George C. Fatheree III, who represented the Bruces pro bono in the original suit against the county. “It was another example—but a very real and a very poignant example—of … how Black people have been historically disenfranchised and systematically robbed of opportunities to generate wealth and pass it down on a generational basis.”
The decision to return the beach is a landmark one, Fatheree emphasizes. “You hear about these stories in the South and in Tulsa, and this was something in my backyard,” he says. “What the history does is it counters the false narrative about how our economy works, [that] if you just work hard and apply yourself and make the effort, you can acquire success and make a better life for yourself and your family. For Black people, that is just not true.”
Now when Fatheree drives past Bruce’s Beach, he is struck by its historical significance. “It tears at me. It’s a heavy weight because we are not done,” he says. “We have to make sure [the Bruces’] story is told and understood.”
“We have to get people to understand that it is right and necessary that we engage in acts of restitution to try to rectify some other past economic injustice,” he continues. “When I see [Bruce’s Beach] now, I think, ‘Hey let’s get back to work.’”
Four more historically Black beaches to visit:
American Beach, Amelia Island, Florida
Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a wealthy Black businessman, is credited with founding this beach in 1935. At its peak, it was the site of extravagant parties and concerts by the most revered Black artists of the time, such as Cab Calloway. Much of the land is now privately owned and part of a historic district, but the National Park Service oversees the Nana sand dune. A plaque honors the beach’s roots, while the A.L. Lewis Museum (temporarily closed for renovations) tells the history.
Chicken Bone Beach, New Jersey
A memorial plaque at 21srcsrc Boardwalk helps distinguish this sandy stretch of Atlantic City, established in 19srcsrc as a result of segregation. For decades Black travelers flocked here to enjoy sand and surf and a bustling entertainment zone drawing top musicians, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong. Travelers can still check out summertime jazz concerts organized by the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation.
Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Beach Subdivision Historic District (SANS), New York
Maude Terry seeded this Sag Harbor Bay enclave by purchasing property there in the 193srcs. By 1947, this section of Long Island near the Hamptons became a retreat for well-to-do Black families and now shelters one of the country’s oldest Black communities. In 2src2src, it was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Highland Beach, Maryland
A chance encounter in 1892 between Charles Douglass, the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and locals, the Brashear family, led to the establishment of this resort town. Over the years, the Chesapeake Bay community, just south of Annapolis, grew to include prominent Black Americans, including Booker T. Washington and Alex Haley, along with a few dozen descendants of the founders.
Alison Bethel is a Dallas-based journalist and editor and founding editor-in-chief of State Affairs. She was a senior editor at the Boston Globe, the Detroit News, and the Nassau Guardian, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.