Let’s Unpack This

White Theft of Black Land, or, When Not Even Reparations Are Enough

The Bruce family should have been millionaires by now, but California officials brazenly stole their beachfront property

Manhattan Beach maintenance worker Omar Morrison pours water on the new sod surrounding a newly constructed monument at Bruce’s Beach on March 3, 2007. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images

White people stealing land from Black people is a tale as old as time. It happened in Mississippi, where Black landowners “lost” 12 million acres over the past century. It happened in Chicago after White people cheated aspiring Black homeowners with predatory contracts. It happened in California when Los Angeles County officials used eminent domain to steal land from Anthony Bruce’s ancestors in 1924.

Anthony is a descendant of Willa and Charles Bruce, who became Manhattan Beach’s first Black landowners in 1912. By 1924, the Bruces created a thriving beach resort that doubled as a safe space for Black people to enjoy. White neighbors and members of the KKK terrorized the family for years before city officials condemned the land and claimed they needed it for a public park. They stripped the family of millions in future generational wealth, paying them only $14,500 after the family tried to sue. (Of course they lost the case.)

It truly doesn’t get more American than that.

People regularly describe slavery as “America’s original sin,” but I would argue that stealing land and refusing to pay reparations is a close second. L.A. County is responsible for stripping an entire family tree—hell, a family forest—of potential generational wealth. And supposedly nothing can be done about it. Manhattan Beach City Council member Steve Napolitano says restitution wasn’t an option because “the City is precluded from making a gift of public funds for private purposes.”

Here’s more background to the story.

In 2007, the city took steps to make amends. It renamed the stolen area “Bruce’s Beach” and installed a plaque to honor what took place nearly 100 years ago. There was, however, a small oversight: The plaque honored George Peck, a White man, for making it possible for the Bruces to settle there, without acknowledging that Peck reportedly blocked Black beachgoers’ path to the shore.

Officials did not build that public park for more than 30 years. City officials eventually relented and constructed the park in the 1950s because they were worried family members would sue.

More recently, one Bruce family relative called such blatant theft a “scar on the family, financially and emotionally.” The city said it can’t pay reparations but may give the land back to the family. That feels like a slap in the face since Janice Hahn, an L.A. County supervisor, said descendants of the Bruce family “would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property.”

It’s ironic that public officials used eminent domain—the right for the government to take private property for public use with payment—to remove the Bruce family from their land in 1924 but can’t use those same funds to make things right. We can add Manhattan Beach to the list of cities reckoning with their history of stealing from Black people but pretending they have no idea what to do about it.

The city’s plundering of the Bruce family created a trickle-down effect on the town’s development. When Willa and Charles Bruce owned the resort, a small enclave of Black landowners lived and worked nearby. Following the terrorism and theft was a mass exodus of Black residents. Manhattan Beach houses 35,000 people, less than 1% of whom are Black, according to the 2010 census. Napolitano acknowledges that the city’s racial demographics are “overwhelmingly white, in part because of the history of Bruce’s Beach.”

I could write one article every day for the rest of my life and still not properly catalog just how much and how often White people — hiding under the patriarchal umbrella of government or overseers — steal from Black people. I’ve heard many explanations for the alleged “deficit” of Black progress. The statements usually fall along the lines of “Slavery happened a long time ago, and it’s not an excuse,” “Black people need to work harder and stop looking for a handout,” or “Things have never been better for Black people, so if you can’t succeed now, it’s your fault.” Those explanations ring hollow to anyone who cares about the truth.

And what is that truth?

“America” is the reason for Black people’s condition.

Black progress ruins the idea — embraced by many — that the natural order of things keeps us permanently at the bottom. Black people work tirelessly to navigate the daily assaults to our existence, which are a pillar of every American institution and serve to depress our ascent. It’s the backdrop to why our humanity had to be literally written into the Constitution.

Manhattan Beach isn’t an anomaly. City officials, White neighbors, and the KKK—which most assuredly has more than one person simultaneously serving in all three groups—banding together like the Avengers to wreak havoc on the lives of Black people wasn’t limited to slavery, Reconstruction, or the Civil Rights movement.

It’s in every day of American history.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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