How a California beachfront property now worth millions was taken from its Black owners

A century ago, white supremacists forced a Black family out of the California beach property where they operated a resort. This week, 60 Minutes+ reports on how efforts to right that wrong are still being met with opposition today. See the story, now streaming only on Paramount+

Video Transcript

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- 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.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: It was a pop-up tent affair when they first opened.

- Doctor Allison Rose Jefferson is a historian who has spent years researching the history of Black Americans in California beach towns like this one.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: This was an 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, you know, something to drink, a place to change their clothes.

- So this was really in a lot of ways a linchpin of a growing Black community in this area.

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

- But as was common in the Jim Crow era, the white residents of Manhattan Beach were hostile to their new Black neighbors and attempted to run them out.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: So even while the business was successful, from day one they were harassed with tactics to chase them out of the area.

- From day one?

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: From day one.

- A prominent local developer enlisted volunteer police officers to prevent The Bruce's clients from accessing the beach. And later, residents, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, began a harassment campaign. Tell me what you know of how your family members were harassed.

- A mattress was burned underneath the house or the Bruce's Beach Lodge and there were threats.

- So they were trying to run them out?

- Yes, of course.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: They slashed people's tires. They harassed the Bruces with a telephone campaign of racial derogatory threats.

- The message was clear-- Black people were not welcome in Manhattan Beach, but Willa and Charles Bruce refused to leave, and their business continued to thrive. Eventually a group of white residents grew even more aggressive in the campaign to run them out.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: The city said that it was taking this land through eminent domain to build a park. And the Bruces and some of the other families fought this effort, but they weren't successful in the fight.

- The Bruces and four other Black families had their property taken by the city via eminent domain. The Bruces requested $70,000 for their property, but the city ultimately paid them just $14,500. Area realtors told us that today, their plots would be worth about $20 million. And the move had its intended effect. While some of the families moved elsewhere in the city, others, including the Bruces, left Manhattan Beach for good.

A century later, the city's population remains less than 1% Black. The land that once housed the Bruce's resort is home to a lifeguard training center.

DR. ALLISON ROSE JEFFERSON: The African-American community lost because they lost the opportunity to develop this community down there, just like white people develop community. They also lost the opportunity to develop social space, lost the opportunity to learn how to surf, lost the opportunity to go fishing. The African-American community lost out big time.

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