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Erasing a line drawn in the sand

Manhattan Beach renames a park to honor a black couple forced to give up their resort in the 1920s.

March 19, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

In two weeks, Manhattan Beach city leaders and residents plan to gather at a small park by the ocean to lift the veil from a commemorative plaque, revealing a piece of little-known local history.

"This two-block neighborhood was home to several minority families and was condemned through eminent domain proceedings commenced in 1924," the plaque reads. "Those tragic circumstances reflected the views of a different time."

After debate last summer, the City Council voted to rename the park Bruce's Beach, acknowledging the African American couple who bought the land overlooking the Pacific in 1912.

There, Charles A. and Willa Bruce created one of the few places in Southern California where black families could swim and relax along its sun-bathed shores. They ran an inn called Bruce's Lodge, a cafe and a dance hall.

By the mid-1920s, city leaders contended that the land occupied by the Bruces' resort would better serve the community as a public park. The city used its powers of condemnation to buy the land from the Bruces and other nearby residents, removing most of Manhattan Beach's African American residents and visitors.

No park was built there for three decades.

Some who know this slice of history believe that the story of Bruce's Beach merits more than a commemorative plaque and should be explained in a more detailed exhibit that speaks to the issue in the context of segregationist practices of the time. The City Council has not embraced that idea, approving only the name change and plaque.

It's not known yet how many people will attend the dedication March 31; planning started just last week. But among those committed to show up are Robert L. Brigham and Alison Rose Jefferson -- historians generations apart -- who researched the story of Bruce's Beach. They and others took the issue to City Hall, winning the backing of Mitch Ward, the city's first black elected official, who requested the ceremony.

An invitation will probably be extended to Bernard Bruce, 72, the grandson of Charles and Willa, welcoming him to the town that forced his ancestors out.

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White and upscale

Manhattan Beach is best known for its wide sandy beaches that draw visitors from throughout the region. Cyclists glide along the Strand, past multimillion-dollar residences and well-kept gardens thick with roses. Tourists flock to the city's upscale restaurants and bars.

The city of 30,000 remains predominantly white -- 89% in the latest census. Just 0.6% of its residents are black, only a small increase since 1970.

Brigham moved to Manhattan Beach from Los Angeles in 1939 at age 12 with his middle-class parents. He recalled riding through the city by bus and wondering why two blocks of seaside land sat barren, pockmarked with weeds and empty Coca-Cola bottles.

"I said to some of the adults, 'Why is it?' " said Brigham, 79. "They would put me off, saying, 'You don't want to know,' or 'You're too young' or 'I don't know.' "

Years later, as a Cal State Fresno graduate student in history, he set out to write his master's thesis on Bruce's Beach and returned to his hometown to ask old-timers the same question. Why is that land still vacant?

"There's a kind of tension," he said, "between people who are very conscious of the history of Bruce's Beach and those who would rather forget about the whole thing."

Brigham, who taught at Mira Costa High School for 38 years, learned that Willa Bruce bought the land in 1912 and that she opened the resort with her husband. Beachgoers flocked there from fast-growing black communities in Los Angeles. A few other black families built homes nearby.

"You would take the Red Car down to the beach and spend a day on the beautiful beach or rent a room if you desired," Miriam Matthews, Los Angeles' first black librarian, said in an essay prepared for the California African American Museum. The resort hosted Sunday school gatherings and families, and "if one tired of the sand and surf, the parlor was available for listening to music or dancing."

White resentment festered.

Beachgoers would find the air let out of their car tires, Brigham wrote in his 1956 thesis. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan tried to set fire to the resort's main building. Someone burned a cross nearby. White residents roped off the sands to keep blacks away.

Eleven years after the resort opened, city officials started condemnation proceedings, and its buildings were razed in 1927. The Bruces received $14,500.

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'Part of my dreams'

Nearly 50 years after Brigham finished his thesis, Jefferson, a master's candidate in historic preservation at USC, read a Los Angeles Times column about Bruce's Beach. Her interest piqued, she tracked down Brigham's thesis and delved deeper, uncovering a cache of old photographs at the Los Angeles Public Library.

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