Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Landmark California bill could help Black families reclaim seized land


Now to a story about land theft and a family's fight to get it back. In 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif., seized a beachfront property. The land belonged to an African American couple named Charles and Willa Bruce, the founders of a once-flourishing seaside resort called Bruce's Beach Lodge. The white residents of Manhattan Beach wanted of their Black neighbors gone, and the city complied. Charles and Willa Bruce lost the resort and their fortune. It's an injustice that dates back nearly a century. And for years, the land was owned by the county of Los Angeles - until last week.


GAVIN NEWSOM: Today we're making history.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: That's right. That's right.


NEWSOM: And so I'm proud to be here, not just for the descendants of the Bruce family but for all of those families torn asunder...


NEWSOM: ...Because of racism.

MARTÍNEZ: California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke at a press conference at Bruce's Beach. He was holding the bill that would give the land back to the Bruce family.


NEWSOM: So with that, let's sign this bill and turn this property over.


MARTÍNEZ: Today, Bruce's Beach consists of a lifeguard training center and a park with panoramic views of the Pacific.

DUANE YELLOW FEATHER SHEPARD: Well, we're looking over the horizon and a beautiful, beautiful ocean. It's blue and serene. And it's quiet. It's just a gorgeous, gorgeous view.

MARTÍNEZ: Duane Yellow Feather Shepard is a cousin of the direct descendant of Charles and Willa Bruce. He's also a clan chief for the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe of the Pokanoket Nation. He's traced his family's painful history on this land.

The resort that was here a long time ago, what did it offer Black people in the LA area back then?

SHEPARD: Well, there weren't many areas where Black people could get into the water along the entire coast of California at that time. And this place offered them a dance hall, a place where they could rent bathing suits. And there was a restaurant here. So it was a full-service facility. It was a place where people could come have social functions. You had the Black entertainers, the actors and actresses and jazz artists at that time. You had the politicians, the Black politicians and - as well as the business owners and socialites. They all came here and used this facility for their social functions 'cause it was one of the largest in the community.

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, where we're standing right now is absolutely gorgeous.

SHEPARD: Yes, it is.

MARTÍNEZ: I think people don't realize it until, say, they walk past it or stand where we're standing, right at the top, to see...


MARTÍNEZ: ...What Charles and Willa actually had and then what they lost.


MARTÍNEZ: I mean, does it make you angry to think about...


MARTÍNEZ: ...All of that?

SHEPARD: I'm angry about the way that Charles and Willa Bruce and their family was treated - terrorized, threatened and harassed and attacked.

MARTÍNEZ: White residents feared an invasion by the African American community in Manhattan Beach. They set up barricades to keep Black beachgoers from getting to the ocean. And members of the Ku Klux Klan active along the California coast reportedly attacked the Bruce's resort.

SHEPARD: They slashed tires. They burned mattresses under the porch of the resort. They tried to blow up a gas meter of one of the residents here. They have 24 hour - 24/7 phone campaigns of threats against Willa and her family.

MARTÍNEZ: Manhattan Beach city officials invoked eminent domain in 1924. They claimed to build a public park. Now, the resort, once a safe haven for Black families was shuttered and demolished. The Bruces requested $120,000 for both damages and the value of the property. Instead, the city granted them $14,500. Today, the two parcels of land are worth an estimated $75 million. Bruce's Beach is one example of land theft that's taken place across the United States through violence, intimidation and legal maneuvers. For generations, Black landowners, like the Bruces, have been victimized by eminent domain abuse and unjust property laws.

Is there any way to calculate the total amount of money Black property owners have lost in the United States over the course of generations?

THOMAS MITCHELL: So what I'd say is we're talking in the trillions.

MARTÍNEZ: This is Thomas Mitchell, a property law scholar from Texas A&M University. He's worked to reform the discriminatory policies that have stripped African Americans of their land.

MITCHELL: I'm part of a research team called the Land Loss and Reparations Research Project. And what our research team is doing is trying to put an economic value on the agricultural land Black farmers unjustly lost over the course of the last hundred years. And our research team has come up with a preliminary estimate of $300 billion in just lost economic value of the land itself. And we're also then going further and saying, well, as a result of losing this land, well, we lost the ability to benefit from the land ownership, in terms of families getting loans to send their children to college and universities, which then has a negative impact on economic mobility. And that's just Black farmers. There's a lot of African Americans who've lost property in this country who are not Black farmers. And so we're talking trillions.

MARTÍNEZ: But here's the thing. Families like the Bruces, whose property was taken generations ago, they're not entitled to get it back. Statutes of limitation restrictions prevent that. Mitchell points to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when white mobs tried to destroy what was known as Black Wall Street.

MITCHELL: What we got out of Tulsa, Okla. - yes, there was a state commission. Yes, it did do a detailed report. Yes, that (laughter) detailed report documented tremendous and horrible abuses and killings and burning of businesses and taking of property. But it didn't lead to one penny. It didn't lead to a single property being returned.

MARTÍNEZ: Bruce's Beach is different because the government actually stepped in. The California legislature passed a law to give the land back.

MITCHELL: The Bruces' case represents the first instance in the history of the United States where an African American family or community that had their property taken unjustly ended up having it returned. Literally, there's not been another instance in U.S. history.

MARTÍNEZ: Now that there's a first, what are the chances of there being another?

MITCHELL: What we're going to have to ask ourselves is, is the Bruce's Beach case a recognition that the time has come for real racial justice in this country? Can this serve as a template for providing effective redress to other African American families who have had their property taken unjustly? And so we'll see.


KAVON WARD: Justice for Bruce's Beach.





WARD: Power to the people. Power to my people.



MARTÍNEZ: That's the voice of Kavon Ward speaking at the press conference with Governor Newsom last week. Newsom said Ward was a driving force behind the Bruce's Beach movement. And that led to her starting the organization Where Is My Land.


WARD: Through Where Is My Land, the fight for restorative and reparative justice continues nationally.


WARD: No justice.




MARTÍNEZ: When Ward learned about Bruce's Beach last year, she says she vowed to make a change.

WARD: I informed the family that I would do anything in my power to help them not only get restitution for their loss of civil rights, their loss of business enterprise, but for me, I felt like justice was getting their land back.

MARTÍNEZ: On the opposite coast, in Philadelphia, Ashanti Martin was on a similar mission. The two were introduced through a mutual friend. And together Ward and Martin co-founded Where Is My Land.

ASHANTI MARTIN: I read about George Floyd's ancestor, Hillery Thomas Stewart - back in the late 1800s had owned 500 acres of land in North Carolina. And that land was stolen by white farmers. I think there's no question - had George Floyd's ancestors kept that land in their family, his life outcomes would have transformed.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you two officially founded the Where Is My Land project in July of 2021. Ashanti, what was the goal? What's the - what was the initial goal?

MARTIN: Well, the initial goal was to continue Kavon's work - encouraging people, encouraging Black families. We know that there are Black families who have know they have land. They know where it is. And they have been trying to get it back. It is going to be a massive undertaking. But we believe it. And we believe that people will act and people will support this and people will be upset when they learn this history.

MARTÍNEZ: And speaking of the massive challenge - so in 2001, The Associated Press conducted a very deep-dive investigation in the Black land loss. So this is an article from 2001 - 20 years ago - and I want to read a part of it. Quote, "No one knows how many Black families have been unfairly stripped of their land, but there are indications of extensive loss. Besides the 107 cases The Associated Press documented, reporters found evidence of dozens more that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record." Kavon, when you hear that, I mean, do you almost feel like this is a massive mountain that maybe in your lifetime you won't be able to climb?

WARD: Absolutely. I don't think that we can handle all of this within my lifetime. But I think it's important to raise the next generation of the youth to be able to handle it within their lifetimes, in their children's lifetimes. I think this is something that - you know, it took a long time for, you know, the land to be stolen. It didn't happen overnight. And so getting it back is going to take even longer because there are so many obstacles or roadblocks in the way. And so the only thing we can do is make sure that we're dealing with this one family at a time.

NEWSOM: This can be catalytic.


NEWSOM: What we're doing here today...


NEWSOM: ...Can be done and replicated anywhere else.



MARTÍNEZ: The Bruce family says they won't move to Manhattan Beach or build on the land that's now being returned to them. Instead, they'll rent the lifeguard training center back to the county of Los Angeles. Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, who we heard from earlier, says reclaiming Bruce's Beach was just the first step. Now he says his family will continue their fight for restitution for the loss of revenue over the past 97 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY'S "CIRCULATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.