California beachfront land taken from Black family returned in ceremony

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By Rollo Ross

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - A century-old racial injustice was righted on Wednesday when the deed to Los Angeles County beachfront property that had been taken from an African-American couple was ceremoniously returned to their heirs.

Dignitaries participating in the ceremony called the return of government land unjustly acquired from Black citizens unprecedented in the United States and a model for other jurisdictions to follow.

The property now belongs to Marcus and Derrick Bruce, great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, who said they will share the proceeds with their extended family.

Derrick Bruce attended Wednesday's ceremony along with his son Anthony Bruce, who will manage the property, which houses a lifeguard training facility. Los Angeles County will now lease the land for $413,000 per year and retain the right to buy it for $20 million.

"I hope that many people are propelled to action because of this and that they understand that it does take a lot of grit. ... You've got to be protesting if you really want to get this done," Anthony Bruce told Reuters, crediting community activist Kavon Ward with spearheading the return campaign.

Bruce's Beach, 7,000 square feet (650 square meters) of prime real estate in the city of Manhattan Beach, had once been the rare resort where Black people could gather and enjoy the beach in segregated and discriminatory Los Angeles County of the early 20th century.

In 1924 Manhattan Beach officials, ostensibly claiming eminent domain to build a park, forced out Willa and Charles Bruce. The land was later transferred to the state and then the county.

Activists and politicians determined the real motivation for eminent domain was racism, and passed a state law last year to approve returning the land to the Bruces' heirs.

Ward's campaign included a protest in 2020 that was noticed by County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

"This is something that's happened across this country and if the people in power really want to make amends for what they have done to Black people, this is the way to do it - return stolen land," Ward told Reuters.

Hahn said when she approached county lawyers about returning the land under these circumstances, she was told it had never been done before.

"Today, we're sending a message to every government in this nation confronted with this same challenge: This work is no longer unprecedented," Hahn said at the ceremony.

Dignitaries at the ceremony acknowledged two atrocities of U.S. history - slavery and the genocide of Native American people - by recognizing that the land originally belonged to the Tongva indigenous people and that it was essentially stolen from the Bruces in a country that had not granted equality to the descendants of slaves.

"If the ripple effects of slavery and slavery itself did not exist, then we would not be here today," said state Senator Steven Bradford, who sponsored the state legislation behind the return.

(Reporting by Rollo Ross; Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by Donna Bryson and Leslie Adler)