Bruce's Beach descendants speak out as they await return of seized land

A Black family is sharing their story as they prepare to reclaim Southern California oceanfront property taken from their ancestors almost a century ago. "60 Minutes+" correspondent Wes Lowery joins CBSN AM with more from his conversation with a great-great-grandson in the Bruce family.

Video Transcript

- All right. Now to Southern California. A Black family is speaking out as they get ready to reclaim oceanfront property taken from their ancestors nearly a century ago. "60 Minutes Plus" correspondent Wesley Lowery reports.

WESLEY LOWERY: Anthony's great, great grandparents once owned a popular resort along this beachfront.

- They probably would have had the resort right there.

WESLEY LOWERY: When we brought him here last month, it was just the second time he'd ever visited in person. What did you think this morning when you walked out here and saw this beach and saw that property?

- I thought to myself, this is a magnificent place. And to think that it once was definitely my ancestors' property, it kind of was an emotional moment for me.

WESLEY LOWERY: What were the emotions you were feeling?

- Remembering what my family has gone through. So for me, it's kind of nostalgic. I mean, there's an internal feeling. I don't know how to describe it.

WESLEY LOWERY: Of course, an ownership and a pride.

- Yeah.

WESLEY LOWERY: It was along this sandy stretch that two 33 by 100 square foot plots were once owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, entrepreneurs who arrived here from New Mexico in the early 1900s among a wave of Black Americans who'd migrated to California from across the country. Charles worked as a dining car chef on the train between LA and Salt Lake City, while Willa owned and managed their resort known as Bruce's Beach, which was among the first oceanfront properties here that was owned by and servicing Black residents.

ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON: It was a pop up tent affair when they first opened.

WESLEY LOWERY: Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson is a historian who has spent years researching the history of Black Americans in California beachtowns like this one.

ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON: This was a opportunity for a leisure business to provide services to African-Americans who wanted to come to the beach. They would be less harassed in this area because there was this African-American business that could provide them with something to drink, a place to change their clothes.

WESLEY LOWERY: So this was really in a lot of ways a linchpin of a growing Black community in this area.

ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON: Yes. If they hadn't been down there, I don't know that other people would have bought property down there.

- So joining us now to talk a little bit more about the "60 Minutes Plus" piece is correspondent Wes Lowery. Wes, thank you so much for joining us. I think this story is so incredibly fascinating. And I know there's a focus now on this section, it's a nice sexy parcel of land close to the beach. But this is a conversation that's actually been happening across the country, African-American farmers who have seen their land over generations be whittled away, the issue of heirs' rights to property in many Southern states.

And often what we have seen are Black families either lose their land through illegal measures or quite legal but unethical measures. So I'm wondering about how the broader implications of this lawsuit, and if they get their land back, what it will mean not just for them but across the country.

WESLEY LOWERY: Of course. As you noted, this is part of kind of a growing movement and conversation across the country, first and foremost, about our own history and about trying to kind of honestly grapple with things that have happened in our past, people who have been harmed, things that have been taken. But secondarily, a question about, how do you make people whole? Whether that is via payments, whether that's via returning things that have been taken, how do you acknowledge history that isn't the most fun or doesn't make us look the best, but that is important to understand.

And so all of these elements are playing out in Bruce's Beach. And I'll be honest. One things that was interesting in this case was not just the steps forward, but also some of the resistance to these efforts. I think that sometimes we like to think, well, well, we've made so much progress, and everyone's on the same page on X, Y, and Z. But in this case, it was very interesting to watch and to look at some of the resistance from local residents to the idea of giving the land back. And you start to see how some of the stuff might have happened in the first place.

- Yeah. That's a very fascinating question about, how do you make people whole? Because what we're talking about now is the possibility of intergenerational wealth that's cut off at the knees. We have no idea where these descendants might be if they had access to the money that was generated either by the land or by the resort. Maybe they would have been the ones creating bitcoins and investing, or sort of Silicon Valley titans, because they would have been able to go to great schools, or any of that stuff.

And not saying that-- they may be now as well too. There are a lot of descendants. But you sat down with a historian to talk about the significance of the resort property that was there. What did it mean to the community at the time?

WESLEY LOWERY: So the point you raised I think is important. The state senator we talked to [INAUDIBLE] the Bruces could have been the Hiltons, or the Kennedys, or the Hearst. We have no idea what would have happened if they hadn't been cut off that way. Now Willa and Charles Bruce were entrepreneurs. They moved to Manhattan Beach in Southern California in 1912 and started Bruce's Beach, which was a resort. It was one of the only oceanfront properties that was owned by and servicing Black Americans at the time.

This was a place where Black people could come and surf, swim, cook out, they could use the bath houses to wash the sand off of them, which at the time was not something they could do in any of the white owned bathhouses. And so this really was a important spot, an important place. In some ways, it might seem almost frivolous to think about a fight over the beach. But you have to remember that the debate or the discussion around Black personhood and citizenry.

The idea that Black Americans should be able to enjoy the full American experience, which means getting to learn to surf, which means getting to enjoy the beach in Southern California when it's beautiful. And so this was something that was really important. But despite their success, their business was making a lot of money, it was extremely popular. The town at the time, the city at the time was still in its early development.

It was very uncomfortable that there were people, prominent business owners, who wanted to keep Manhattan Beach white only, did not like the fact that this business was attracting Black people to the area. And so they came under attack by racist harassment, a mattress was burned under their house, there were people who were trying to-- you're hiring constables to keep their beach goers from being able to access the beach. And then ultimately, the city seized their land and the land of a few other Black families in the area, the eminent domain saying they were going to build a park.

And essentially at the time, this was because they wanted to keep Manhattan Beach an all white city.

- Just really, really quickly, Wes, what do the descendants plan to do with the land?

WESLEY LOWERY: So right now, they're still having a conversation about it. But there's a chance they may lease the land back to the county, that there might not even be a big change on what's happening on the property, but rather now they'd be able to be paid for the way the county is using the land.

- I love it. Well, I got to tell you. Every time I see the picture of the original owners, the Bruces, there I keep thinking, what a classy looking couple. Makes me feel good just to look at the picture. Wes, thank you so much, Wes.

WESLEY LOWERY: Of course. Thank you.