Fragments of Reparation & Recognition in the Golden State

Fragments of Reparation & Recognition in the Golden State

Aerial image of Bruce’s Beach park (highlighted in color), Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. Adapted from Google Earth, 2021.

On September 30, California Governor Gavin Newsome signed Senate Bill 796 into law, which authorized the return of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of the Black landowners who were dispossessed of the property in the early 20th century. Los Angeles Times reporter Rosanna Xia has covered this story as it has developed over the past year. Her reporting builds upon the work of historian Alison Rose Jefferson, whose book “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era” devotes a chapter to the history of Bruce’s Beach. As Xia explains:

In 1912, Willa Bruce purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets. While her husband, Charles, worked as a dining-car chef on the train running between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, Willa ran a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall — providing Black families a way to enjoy a weekend on the coast.

Many referred to this area as Bruce’s Beach. A few more Black families bought and built their own cottages by the sea. A community was born.

There was a mixed reaction among the white community in Manhattan Beach. Some began harassing the Bruces’ guests. Others, such as the developer George Peck, installed “no trespassing” signs to make it difficult for guests to reach the shoreline (Jefferson 2020:35). Willa Bruce knew what she was up against, and she refused to leave. In a Los Angeles Times article from June 1912, she is quoted as saying: “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” (from Jefferson 2020:36).

She persisted. By the mid 1920s, a total of six Black families owned property in the immediate vicinity. “The Bruces’ claim to the place through purchase, residency, and day-to-day commerce appears to have been the anchor of a growing community,” writes Jefferson (2020:37). 

The reactions from the white community reemerged with renewed harassment. This harassment included everything from fake parking signs and tire slashing to the creation of prejudicial local ordinances that clearly targeted the Black community. There was a cross burning in front of one family’s home, along with an anonymous telephone campaign that was meant to scare and terrorize the Bruce’s and their neighbors.

None of it drove them out. So, in 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach passed ordinances that condemned all of the Black properties so that a public park could be made (Jefferson 2020:42). The Bruces sued, seeking $120,000 in compensation. They ended up getting $14,500 after extended court battles that lasted years. Other landowners received far less. 

What happened at Bruce’s Beach was quickly erased, excised, and purposefully forgotten from public memory. As Alison Rose Jefferson puts it, “the memory of Bruce’s Beach has remained muted for three quarters of a century” (2020: 29). It wasn’t until the 1990s and early 2000s that the histories of this place–and these people–began to be reclaimed. The site was formally dedicated with a plaque and renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007. It had not been known by that name for more than eighty years. Jefferson (2020:29) writes:

The  commemoration that resulted became a decorous sort of reclamation of history, designed to absolve contemporary white residents of the uncomfortable truths from the past that they found appalling and embarrassing. Their image of themselves was blemished and their respectability tarnished by the injustice of the African American community’s dispossession. The commemorative plaque placed on the newly named park signage shows this absolution of contemporary white residents and a narrow portrayal of black actors’ contributions to Manhattan Beach, demonstrating the complexity of the layers of the African American experience and history Los Angeles, California, and the United States, and African Americans’ struggle for public memory, generally.

The passing of SB 796, and the return of the Bruce’s land to their descendants represents a more decisive, rather than merely symbolic, act of reparation. But it’s just one step, one fragment of reparation in a settler state that has been built upon extensive dispossession, violence, and erasure. As Xia notes in her LA Times piece, the story of the Bruces begins much further back, with the Tongva people, who were violently dispossessed of their land–which encompassed the land that the Bruce’s eventually purchased–long before. The histories and the experiences of the Tongva people were erased, too, like so many Native American peoples in California (see Jurmain and McCawley 2009 regarding the Tongva specifically). There are layers of dispossession in this land, and they run deep.

As with the Bruce’s, everything from overt violence (and outright murder) to the use of laws and ordinances was used to systematically displace and dispossess Native American peoples in California. This included the use of the democratic process and assertions of the “will of the people” that served the interests of the state’s white majority:

A key to understanding the relationship between Native Americans and non-Native in California is to recognize that our shared past contains a genocide of monstrous character and proportions, perpetrated by democratic, freedom-loving U.S. citizens in the name of democracy, but really to secure great wealth in the form of land against Indians cast as savage, uncivilized, alien enemies. This seems the key point to be made about how California came to exist in its present form, especially as the land we occupy today is the very same ground on which these terrible crimes took place. We Californians are the beneficiaries of genocide. I suspect few Californians today contextualize their homes as sitting upon stolen land or land gained by bloody force or artful deceits, nor do they likely consider the social and political questions of present-day Native American affairs in this light (Lindsay 2015).  

As someone who grew up in California, I can certainly attest to the widespread ignorance of the treatment of Native people…not to mention Black, Chinese, and other communities that also faced violence, discrimination, and dispossession over ensuing decades afterward. Such erasures, many of them willful, are entrenched. Addressing such injustices and histories will require something more than updating K-12 lesson plans, that’s for sure.

But recognition is a starting point. As I was writing this up, the news about the renaming of Patrick’s Point in Humboldt County broke. The small bluff-top park had been named after Patrick Beegan, a homesteader accused of murdering multiple Native Americans. It will now be called Sue-meg State Park, drawing from the name that has long been used by Yurok people. Leaders in the California State Parks system have signaled that this act of renaming is just the first step in a larger project to: “identify and readdress discriminatory names of features attached to state parks and transportation systems.” Time will tell what this project accomplishes in the long-run.

In the case of Bruce’s Beach, the return of the land to the Bruce descendants began with advocacy, awareness-raising, and the renaming in 2007. There is undoubtedly power that comes with such acts of acknowledgement and recognition. But as Jefferson points out, such gestures can all too easily end up being little more than symbolic acts that serve to absolve contemporary communities of guilt about uncomfortable truths. Reparation may begin with recognition–and renaming–but there has to be something more. The question is not only whether such histories and rights will be acknowledged, but whether more sustained and material acts of restorative justice will follow. 

References

Jefferson, A.R., 2020. Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era. University of Nebraska Press.

Jurmain, C. K., & McCawley, W., 2009. O, my ancestor: recognition and renewal for the Gabrielino-Tongva people of the Los Angeles area. Berkeley, Calif, Heyday Books.

Lindsay, B.C., 2012. Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873. U of Nebraska Press.

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