The recent rain clouds departed just in time for the sun to shine on a new monument that was unveiled in Manhattan Beach this weekend.
Manhattan Beach cut the ribbon on its new plaque at Bruce’s Beach Park on Saturday, March 18.
The new marker honors Black entrepreneurs Willa and Charles Bruce, who ran a seaside resort for Black beachgoers in the early 20th century — between the city’s 26th and 27th streets by what’s now the Strand — as well as other Black property owners who had cottages on the now-park land.
City leadership in the late 1920s took the land through eminent domain for racially motivated reasons, under the guise of needing more park land. The deed to the Bruces’ two parcels of land, below the park and right before the sand, was transferred to descendants of Willa and Charles last year, but the heirs sold the land back to L.A. County earlier this year for $20 million.
The original plaque focused mostly on early, White developer George Peck’s role in allowing Black people to buy beachfront land in Manhattan Beach. But now, finally, the city has set in stone its part in acknowledging this piece of its history.
The Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was played before Mayor Steve Napolitano and a few members of the former history advisory board that compiled a report on Bruce’s Beach gave remarks.
“It’s been a long road, too long, to get here,” Napolitano said Saturday.
It had, in fact, taken nearly three years.
The event was previously set for February, during Black History Month, but was rescheduled due to weather. Before that, the city missed a few other target dates over the past year to install the plaque.
The national reckoning on systemic racism that exploded in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, became particularly local in Manhattan Beach. A Juneteenth celebration, organized by activist Kavon Ward, brought to light the history of Bruce’s Beach and the surrounding area.
A task force initially charged with planning the plaque redo in 2020 was turned into a history advisory board that was then set to rewrite the plaque’s language in 2021. But the City Council ended up taking over that job last year.
In lieu of postponing the unveiling one last time, it’s just as well, Napolitano said, to reveal the plaque during Women’s History Month given the strong, Black women who are at the center of the Bruce’s Beach story.
“Willa Bruce opened Bruce’s Lodge as a place for Black Angelenos to enjoy the beach when there were few places for them to go, and there were few businesswomen–let alone Black businesswomen–at the time,” Napolitano said.
There was also Elizabeth Catley, then a UCLA student who was arrested in 1927 at 19-years-old for swimming in the ocean near Bruce’s Beach Lodge, Napolitano said, inspiring the desegregation of California beaches. And Ethel Prioleau fought for the integration of Black nurses in county hospitals and the desegregation of public swimming pools in Los Angeles.
But the overall story of Bruce’s Beach parallels the story of racism in America in the early part of the last century, Napolitano said.
“As time passed and those most affected by it faded into history, it was a story that was known, but rarely talked about here,” he said.
Late resident Bob Brigham wrote a 1956 masters’ thesis gave accounts of what happened to the Bruces and other Black families back then, he added, but that was just a glimpse of what historians and the city’s history advisory board members have since brought forth.
But it was the advocacy of Ward, a former Manhattan Beach resident, that initially brought this history to the city, county and state’s attention today.
“At best, (the history) simmered in the background until recent events and residents brought it to the forefront of our community’s consciousness,” Napolitano said.
History advisory board member Kristin Long-Drew on Saturday honored Willa Bruce’s tenacity in opening a pop-up stand in 1912 and building it up to a two-story lodge with a dance hall, restaurant and changing rooms, making the area hospitable and welcoming to other Black families.
“George and Ethel Prioleau, Milton and Anna Johnson, Elizabeth Patterson and Mary Sanders all bought and built cottages where we stand now; they were joined by the Irvings, McCaskills and Slaughters who purchased land south of 26th Street,” Long-Drew said. “It was a burgeoning Black community, until it wasn’t.”
Although the eminent domain action was under the pretense of needing a park, Long-Drew said, the history board’s research found that it was actually due to White residents’ fear that an influx of Black neighbors would drive property values down.
“Despite challenging the condemnation, they were forced to sell, and that Black community dissolved,” she added. “Even though we have a ways to go, what we celebrate today is a very significant step in the right direction; we hope that this plaque, as well as the county’s and our history report, will help to inform people about what happened here, inspire them to ask questions and encourage them to acknowledge our past.”
Fellow history board member Tyler St. Bernard said that by reckoning with the story of what happened, only then the Manhattan Beach community can begin to heal from it.
“While the (previous) plaque gave people a glimpse into the history of the land they were on, it failed to present the larger story,” St. Bernard said. “Only with greater context and the revelation of buried details is the full story told.”
And Isla Garraway, who was also on the history board, echoed the need for this new description of a part of city’s history that was largely covered up over time.
“The city’s new plaque affirms the historical significance of the resort that Willa Bruce envisioned,” Garraway said. “I am really grateful that the harms of past racial discrimination have been more accurately recounted in the city’s plaque. I’m grateful that we can move forward as a community with aspirations for a more inclusive Manhattan Beach literally set in stone.”
Gina Young, the great-great niece of Elizabeth Patterson — who owned parcels on the condemned land, traveled from Glendale to attend the ceremony.
“I feel I needed to be here to honor my ancestor,” Young said.
Although Patterson had no biological children, Young said, she raised Young’s grandmother as her own. Young had always known that her family had owned property at a beach, she said, but she didn’t know where.
She was researching Patterson in 2021 and found out she was connected to Bruce’s Beach, Young said, then got in contact with the city, which led her to Saturday.
“I just feel that I’m glad my ancestor was honored today,” she said.
Napolitano also apologized on behalf of the earliertaking of the properties and invited his fellow councilmembers to eventually do the same.
“We have acknowledged and condemned but we haven’t apologized; It’s a simple difference, but with a much deeper meaning,” Napolitano said. “I personally apologize to the Bruces, the Prioleaus, the Pattersons, the Sanders’ the Johnsons, the McCaskills, the Irvings and the Slaughters for the wrongful, racially motivated taking of their property by this city nearly 100 years ago.”
“But I know it doesn’t mean much just coming from me, it needs to come from the city, and for that I want and need my council colleagues to join me in apologizing to these families because that does mean a lot,” Napolitano said.