World Changer of the Month — November 2021: Willa Bruce
In 1912, African-American entrepreneur Willa Bruce and her husband Charles moved from New Mexico to California and bought beachfront property in the strand area of Manhattan Beach for $1,225. Mrs. Bruce wanted to create an area where African Americans could enjoy the ocean. The couple established a resort and named it Bruce’s Beach in honor of Mrs. Bruce.
Under Mrs. Bruce’s leadership, the development included a bathhouse and dining house for African Americans, whose access to public beaches was highly restricted at the time. Before the establishment of Bruce’s Beach, African Americans were not permitted to access the beaches in that region because of racially discriminatory laws and real estate practices. Mrs. Bruce proclaimed to the Los Angeles Times in 1912: “Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused. But I own this land and I’m going to keep it.”
By 1920 African Americans who regularly frequented Bruce’s Beach and had moved into the neighborhood surrounding the beach were subjected to harassment by white neighbors and assault by Ku Klux Klan members who set fires or planted liquor on site during Prohibition to get them arrested. In 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council initiated eminent domain proceedings claiming that Bruce’s Beach property was needed for a public park, despite having recently built Live Oak Park nearby. The Bruces sued the city, but unfortunately the resort was torn down. By 1929, the Bruces settled the case for much less than they had originally sought in the lawsuit. A park was not established until the late 1950s or early 1960s.
In 2006, due to the efforts of Manhattan Beach Councilman Mitch Ward, the city’s first African-American councilman, the property was officially renamed Bruce's Beach. After years of advocacy by the Bruce family descendants and community leaders, in April 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve returning Bruce’s Beach to the family’s descendants. The property to be returned was estimated to be worth $75 million at the time. In June 2021, the California State Senate approved a bill to return the property to descendants of the Bruces. Legislation that prevented the county from transferring or selling the property was eliminated in September 2021 through the legislative approval process. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the legislation later the same month.
Despite not having the land returned to her during her lifetime, Willa Bruce’s vision and entrepreneurship benefitted countless African American residents of her time. She was a trailblazer in the field of commercial real estate and her legacy lives on.
To read more about the life and legacy of Willa Bruce and Bruce’s Beach, please visit: