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CITY COUNCIL Bruce’s Beach plaque and language is approved

Mark McDermott

After nearly two years and dozens of public meetings spent grappling with the issue, the Manhattan Beach City Council finally arrived at its most permanent symbolic gesture thus far to recognize the racist history underlying Bruce’s Beach park. Last Thursday, the Council approved language for a plaque that will be erected in the park, memorializing and attempting to differentiate the current city from what occurred there nearly a century ago.

In 303 words, the plaque language gives a very brief history [see sidebar] of the events that began in 1912 when a Black couple, Charles and Willa Bruce, established a resort catering to the African American Angelino community, which in 1927 culminated with the forced dispossession of the Bruces and four other Black families from their land through the power of eminent domain. The plaque acknowledges that the City’s removal of the families occurred because they were Black.

“The City’s action at the time was racially motivated and wrong,” the plaque states in its concluding lines. “Today, the City acknowledges, empathizes, and condemns those past actions. We are not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. We reject racism, hate, intolerance, and exclusion. This park is named in memory of Bruce’s Beach and in recognition of Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years as a city of respect and inclusion.”

The language the Council approved was largely based on a draft submitted by Councilperson Steve Napolitano, who said he, in turn, based it on the acknowledgement, and condemnation the council agreed upon last year, authored by Councilperson Joe Franklin. That acknowledgement was issued instead of a formal apology, which Napolitano and Mayor Hildy Stern advocated, but a council majority blocked. Then-mayor Suzanne Hadley summed up the argument against the apology at the time, saying the City did not want a “scarlet R” painted on it, denoting Manhattan Beach as a racist place for events that occurred long ago.

Napolitano said the language is in keeping with what the Council already approved.

“The language used in the spirit of the statement I think is consistent with what council has already approved,” he said. “It provides context and contrition while also being forward looking. It’s not just a statement of facts…It gives the City’s acknowledgement new life as a public statement in a public park that the public will see. It’s not on some website or buried in some folder or piles of other materials that no one’s ever going to read. Who reads resolutions from a city?”

The plaque language was originally assigned as a task for the council-appointed History Advisory Board to complete. The HAB compiled a 75-page report on the history of Bruce’s Beach, which was approved by the council, and twice submitted proposed plaque language to the council derived from that report. The first submission was rejected by council last July, causing one of the four-member HAB, Isla Garraway, to resign in protest.

“When the City Council began refuting the facts derived from the report that it had previously accepted, it was clear that I could no longer play an effective role,” Garraway told at the time.

HAB again submitted plaque language in November. The language was for two plaques — one proposed for a location near The Strand, closest to where the Bruce’s lodge formerly existed (now an LA County Lifeguard building) and another in Bruce’s Beach park (where a plaque already exists, but with an inaccurate retelling of the history that glorifies city co-founder George Peck, who in actuality was hostile towards the Bruces). The proposed language for The Strand plaque was 714 words and focused largely on the Bruces; the park plaque was intended to be two-sided, and its proposed language, at 1,416 words, went into greater detail about the other four Black families who lived near the Bruces, as well as a fifth family who lived adjacent to the land, and the 25 white property owners who did not develop the land but also faced eminent domain eviction. Both plaques included QR codes linking to a fuller history.

The Council again rejected the language, in part because a majority believed the plaques presented the City too negatively, and took up the task itself. But immediately LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who successfully led the legislative charge to return the property the County now controls to the Bruce family, took the matter up with her colleagues. The Board of Supervisors is working with the HAB and the Bruce family to erect its own plaque, telling a history more in keeping with the HAB report. Hence the Council chose to only work on a plaque for Bruce’s Beach park.

Hadley suggested that the council should pause its efforts until LA County completed its plaque. That effort is now being led by Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who after recent redistricting now represents this area.

“They’ve signaled they’re going to be using History Advisory Board’s language, so at this point right now I’m okay with just doing nothing,” Hadley said. “I would prefer no plaque at all until we see what the county’s plaque looks like…They’re working on it and they’re hoping to get it done when the land transfer is going on. And I think that’s great. Let’s wait and see what it is.”

Both Hadley and Franklin also argued that the telling of the Bruce’s Beach history should not suggest that the City chased Black families out of Manhattan Beach.

“The facts show that the five black families who lived on and near Bruce’s Beach were given due process, legal representation, were paid a fair amount for their land, and most importantly, were able to purchase land and property elsewhere in Manhattan Beach,” Franklin said. “These facts demonstrate the eminent domain proceedings are not an attempt to remove black families from Manhattan Beach. The facts show that the Bruce’s investment yielded enough funds to purchase in Los Angeles a duplex in which they lived, and two commercial properties near that home. The facts further show the Bruce family ultimately fell victim to the Great Depression, which wiped out the savings and investments and livelihoods of millions upon millions of other families in the United States, in fact around the world, including other businesses in Manhattan Beach. And it paid no heed to the owners’ race, creed or color.”

Four of the five Black families did buy other land in Manhattan Beach. Another Black family who lived just adjacent to Bruce’s Beach, the Slaughters, left town in 1930 after their boarding house was reportedly fire bombed and a flaming cross was erected across the street. The KKK was active in the South Bay at the time but the Council last summer expressly told the HAB to excise mention of that part of the history because documentation linking KKK activity directly to Manhattan Beach was scant.

HAB member Kristin Long Drew, who, in the process of co-authoring the history report, emerged as a formidable and respected local historian, said she could understand both sides of this debate.

“One could say that they were not actually ‘run out of town’ by the condemnation because four out of five did repurchase, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t try to run them out,” Long Drew said, via email. “Beginning in the May that Bruce’s Beach closed, and in the months following their departure, the city passed a series of ordinances that seemed clearly — to me anyway — aimed at making it uncomfortable for Black residents, and their guests in that particular area of town. Then there were the alleged incidents of arson, fire bombing, gunshots and the like aimed at those who remained in town.”

Stern said it was the right time to move forward with the plaque language. She attempted to add a friendly amendment that added language intending to provide more context, such as a mention that a “flourishing” Black-owned business was closed as a result of the City’s actions, “a burgeoning Black neighborhood” was forced to relocate, and the fact that no park was completed for two decades after eminent domain was deployed.

“This is the right time,” Stern said. “We are finally here, ready to really work on this together, the five of us, to really come up with accurate history that really tells the story of how the City and how the residents of Manhattan Beach back in 1920s — how their acts of racism really affected and tried to run these black business owners and these black residents out of Manhattan Beach.”

Hadley said the families were not forced out of the city, and also noted that only the Bruces were year-round residents.

“They were given the opportunity to purchase elsewhere,” she said. “They could have purchased summer cottages elsewhere. They were not full time residents. They were not forced from their fulltime homes — only the Bruces were, and that’s horrific.”

“That’s why they got more money,” Franklin said, referring to the eminent domain settlement the Bruce’s received.

“That was not a Black neighborhood,” Hadley said. “It was a Black summer resort with temporary residents.”

Franklin said the larger point is Black residents could stay in Manhattan Beach. “They were allowed — they were allowed to relocate,” he said.

“Allowed, though?” Napolitano said. “Who allowed them?”

“They were not forbidden,” Franklin said.

Napolitano noted that not allowing Black people to live in the town would have been illegal discrimination “even then.”

Franklin also suggested changes to Napolitano’s proposed language. He suggested adding “several sources reported” the City’s acts were racially motivated and removing the words “and wrong.”

“You don’t think it was wrong?” Napolitano asked.

“You want the reader to make the judgment,” Franklin said. “I mean, somebody can come back and go, ‘Man, that was wrong.’”

“I think the City making a judgment on the City’s action 100 years ago is appropriate,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano rejected all of both Stern’s and Franklin’s suggested revisions. His proposed language eventually was adopted unanimously. The Council appropriated $20,000 for the plaque.

Historian Alison Rose Jefferson, whose book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era includes a chapter on Bruce’s Beach, released a statement critical of the adopted plaque language.

“The proposed new language now approved by the City Council for the new plaque at Bruce’s Beach Park in Manhattan Beach is a recitation of facts with no historical interpretation,” Jefferson wrote. “It is uninspiring and inadequate for landmark language at Bruce’s Beach Park that should be engaging and inspiring for broad present and future generations.”

Jefferson was a consulting historian for the Belmar Project in Santa Monica, a multimedia presentation that included a series of plaques that told the story of a Black neighborhood razed through the power of eminent domain. Jefferson pointedly suggested that the Bruce’s Beach plaque would do little to give readers a real understanding of what occurred.

“However well-intentioned the City Council may be in attempting to address writing this text, what has been developed is about the Councilmembers, not the Bruce’s Beach resort enclave, an African American community of business owners, cottage owners and visitors, that were chased out of Manhattan Beach due to abuse of municipal power and White racism in 1924,” Jefferson wrote. “The proposed text is about the City Councilmembers wanting to be the White saviors as they project their guilt about their city’s racist past actions into this rewritten proposed plaque language for the park in this period of American and global racial reckoning of the last few years.”

Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of the Bruce family who serves as its representative, also rejected the plaque language. He suggested the Council was attempting to limit its exposure to litigation.

“An absolute ‘Whitewash’ of history to hide the covert racist past of Manhattan Beach to avert the litigation that I promised would soon come their way,” he said. “The family has partnered with the County of Los Angeles to post the truth on our property so the people can decide what they want to believe.”

Long Drew said she understood how difficult the task of encompassing history in so few words was, but expressed concern with some of the decisions the Council made — including the very first sentence of the plaque language, which states that the Bruces were “turned away” by other coastal cities before buying land in Manhattan Beach. She said no documentation exists showing this to be fact, only a quote in the LA Times by Willa Bruce shortly after the opening of the resort in which she said, “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused, but I own this land and I intend to keep it.”

“I understand the plaque is a compromise, but I do want them to get it right,” Long Drew said. “It’ll never make everyone happy — despite my futile efforts — but we have to get the facts right. The plaque in 2006-2007 was erroneous because it was politicized, and we can’t repeat that.” ER

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