Eminent Domain

A Black Family's Property Was Seized via Eminent Domain. A Century Later, Their Descendants Just Got It Back.

Segregation-era racists tried to drive the Bruces away from their own beachfront property. When intimidation didn't work, they resorted to the power of the state.


This week, the state of California officially rectified a case of racially motivated eminent domain abuse after nearly a century.

In the early 1900s, a black family, Charles and Willa Bruce, moved to Manhattan Beach, California. In 1912, Mrs. Bruce bought up beachfront property which would be turned into a resort. At a time of strict segregation and racial prejudice, the resort became a haven for black beachgoers who were otherwise banned from the beach.

The resort "created great agitation among the white property owners of adjoining land," the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. Racist neighbors tried to dissuade anyone from patronizing what had come to be called Bruce's Beach, starting by posting "No Trespassing" signs and eventually escalating to the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses nearby. When none of that worked, in 1924, locals successfully petitioned the town's board of trustees to condemn the property. The town seized the Bruces' property for the stated purpose of building a park, giving the family $14,500 for a property worth nearly five times that amount. Today, it is estimated to be worth around $20 million.

Instead of building a park, the city left the lot untouched for decades; the property was transferred to the state in 1948, then to Los Angeles County in 1995. At that time, restrictions were placed on the property that any future transfer of ownership would require state legislation. Today, it contains the county's lifeguard training facility.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law authorizing the return of the property to its rightful owners. In June, after months of negotiation and determining the Bruces' legal heirs, the county's Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan which would return the property. And at a ceremony this week, county officials presented the deed to Anthony Bruce, Charles and Willa's great-great-grandson. Under the new terms, the county will continue to run the lifeguard facility, renting the land from Bruce for $413,000 annually under a two-year lease, with the option to buy it from him outright for $20 million.

Eminent domain, by which the government has the authority to take a person's private property "for public use," is ripe for abuse. Bruce's Beach is a particularly noteworthy example, as the "public use" was clearly just a flimsy excuse. As Janice Hahn, a member of the Board of Supervisors, told Anthony Bruce at the rededication ceremony, "Today, we are returning stolen land."