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How Black Californians Had Their Land Stolen

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A collage image intended to be the title page for a video, showing various faces depicting Black historical figures in black and white juxtaposed with contemporary photos of some of the Black voices featured in the story, with a tagline reading 'Episode 4: how land was taken from Black Americans'
In the fourth episode of our video series on reparations, we explore the stories of thriving Black communities that were ravaged by racist policymaking. (Creo Noveno-Najam/KQED)

K

avon Ward lived in Manhattan Beach, a surfside city about 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles, for more than two years before she learned about the city’s racist history.

In 2020, not long after George Floyd was murdered by police, Ward, a poet and activist, began learning about Bruce’s Beach, the beachfront real estate owned by a Black family before it was seized by the city of Manhattan Beach. The land was eventually turned into a park.

“I remember just looking out down the hill — I was at the top of the park — and seeing all of these white people and I’m thinking to myself, ‘How is it fair that all of these white people get to live here in front of what God created for everyone, after these Black people were run out?,’” Ward told me in a 2022 interview. “They take from us. They take our lives; they take our land; they take everything.”

Ward founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach to secure restitution for the descendants of the Bruces. She wanted reparations.

“It was not so much about it being land, it was more about it being justice served,” said Ward, who also launched Where Is My Land, a national organization focused on using research, advocacy and technology to help families from across the country get remuneration for land loss.

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If you’re not familiar with Bruce’s Beach, here’s an unsanitized version: In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased a lot along the Strand, Manhattan Beach’s oceanfront neighborhood, for $1,225. The couple, part of the Great Migration of Black people who fled racial terror in the south, created a resort that served as a vacation destination for Black people living in California.

The resort became known as Bruce’s Beach. In America, segregative policies restricted Black people from accessing public beaches and swimming pools, but at Bruce’s Beach Black people could relax in the sun without being harassed for, well, being Black. In 1920, the Bruces purchased another lot. Other Black families did the same, creating a thriving Black community in Manhattan Beach.

By 1924, the community was swept away by eminent domain.

In America, Black prosperity — especially economic prosperity — has always been met with oppressive hostility. Sometimes it comes in the form of a lynch mob of rabid racists, like the one in 1921 that presided over a two-day massacre that destroyed the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” Sometimes, like in the case of Bruce’s Beach, it comes in the form of eminent domain, a law that gives the government the right to expropriate private property.

That’s just a sanitized way of saying that Bruce’s Beach was stolen by the city of Manhattan Beach. This racially motivated process has been used in cities and states across the country. If you’ve driven on our nation’s highways, you should know much of the system is a monument to racism because significant portions were built on land that was taken from Black people.

The theft of land, displacement and erasure has tormented Black people since emancipation. After the disbursement of land to the formerly enslaved was revoked following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the call for reparations has had a steady drumbeat. But since the California Reparations Task Force delivered its landmark 1,200-page report in June, the drumbeat has never been louder.

The report has 115 recommendations for reparative measures, including restitution for racially motivated takings of homes.

In the fourth episode of our video series on reparations, we explore the stories of thriving Black communities — Bruce’s Beach, the town of Allensworth, San Francisco’s Fillmore District — that were ravaged by racist policymaking.

“In the beginning of the 20th century, Black people owned 15 million acres of land,” Ward says at the beginning of the video. “By the beginning of the 21st century, 90% of the land was gone. It was taken.”

Millions of acres of Black-owned land was just simply taken. Please remember that the next time a friend, neighbor, colleague or presidential candidate insinuates that Black people aren’t worthy of reparations.

“African Americans in the history of the United States, and within the state of California, have been this kind of available category of persons who can be removed, who can be exploited when it suits the state,” Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, says in the video.

The denial of Black prosperity is a deliberate feature of the American experiment. In 1862, the federal government passed the Homestead Act, which gave American citizens and soon-to-be citizens the right to claim 160 acres of land as America expanded west. More than 160 million acres were claimed by almost 2 million homesteaders. Enslaved and free Black people were, of course, excluded from the wealth-generating bonanza.

Less than 100 years later, the federal government enacted the G.I. Bill, a program to assist World War II veterans through low-interest mortgages and loans. Black people were once again excluded.

“Between 1935 and the late 1940s, the government issued about $120 billion in low-interest housing assistance loans. Ninety-eight percent of those loans went to white people,” Donald K. Tamaki, a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, told Manjula Varghese, my colleague, who is the lead producer of the video series. “This was the transfer of wealth to help build today’s middle class.”

In this country, homeownership is the largest source of wealth for families. More than 1 million Black people were displaced, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates, when America erected the highway system. Private property was seized by eminent domain, and hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were demolished.

In San Francisco, the redevelopment of the Fillmore, a neighborhood once known as the “Harlem of the West” because of the large number of Black businesses and entertainment venues in the area, was one of the largest projects of urban renewal on the West Coast. The decade-long project would end up displacing more than 13,000 residents.

In addition to restitution for racially motivated takings of homes, the state task force recommended providing a right to return for displaced Black people and subsidizing the purchase of new homes through down payment and loan assistance programs.

The Bruces, who left Manhattan Beach in 1927, were paid about $15,000 at the time for their land, an insufficient sum for running people out of town. It took decades for the city, which, according to 2022 Census data is 71% white and less than 1% Black, to turn Bruce’s Beach into a park.

According to Zillow, the real estate tracking website, the average home price in Manhattan Beach at the end of June was roughly $3 million. Homes along the Strand where Bruce’s Beach was located cost almost $5 million more.

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In June 2022, ownership of the park property was transferred back to the descendants of the Bruces by Los Angeles County. The descendants then sold the land back to the county for $20 million —atonement for almost a century of harm.

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