When Kavon Ward walks onto Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, a wealthy, predominately white coastal enclave in southern California, she keeps her focus on the ocean. Looking elsewhere gets her blood boiling.
“I feel disgusted. When I look straight ahead into the water I am fine, but when I look right or left and see all these big homes owned by white people, I get mad,” she says.
Her anger stems from last year’s movement to return Bruce’s Beach to the heirs of Willa and Charles Bruce. The couple had purchased the property in 1912 as a haven for African Americans barred from swimming at or enjoying seashores designed for whites only. In its heyday, the property included a resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge, with a hotel, beach house, restaurant, and dance hall.
Kavon Ward looks out at the ocean at Bruce’s Beach, in Manhattan Beach, California, on March 9, 2021. Ward has been working to raise awareness about the Bruce family and the valuable property that the city took from them in the 1920s.
“I just remembered being so angry and so upset [that the property was taken]. I had no plans on being an advocate or anything. I just put it out there: ‘I want the land given back,’” says Ward, who founded Where Is My Land last year, after taking up the cause for Bruce’s Beach. “My spirit told me this is what I was supposed to do. I knew it.”
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Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom fulfilled Ward’s wish, by signing a law authorizing Los Angeles County to return the three-acre property to the Bruce family after nearly a century—a first in United States history. And last week, the county agreed to an unprecedented two-year lease with the family, including the option for the county to purchase the property for $20 million.
Bruce’s Beach isn’t the only historically Black beach in America. Dozens dot the East Coast and elsewhere, including Bay Street Beach, known as “The Inkwell,” in Santa Monica, California. South Carolina’s Atlantic Beach, also known as “The Black Pearl,” is the only one in the country to have remained in the hands of African Americans since its founding in the 1930s.
As Americans head to sandy shores this summer, the story of Bruce’s Beach shines a light on a troubling time in American history, when the government illegally seized properties owned by people of color.
It also offers hope that such properties—worth billions by one estimate—will someday be returned to the descendants of the Black families who purchased them, in some cases, to experience a quintessential summertime holiday, free from racism.