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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Sam Levin in Los Angeles

Plaque acknowledging racist history of California beach town stolen, police say

The monument at Bruce’s Beach Park
The monument at Bruce’s Beach park in Manhattan Beach, California, last year. Photograph: Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A plaque recognizing the racist history of a southern California beach town that seized land from a Black family in the 1920s has been stolen, police say.

The monument was erected last year in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles county to honor the history of Bruce’s Beach, where a Black couple built a popular resort for Black Americans in the early 1900s before the local government took control of their land and destroyed their business.

The plaque at Bruce’s Beach park by the ocean was reported stolen on Monday, according to Manhattan Beach police, which has solicited tips about the theft.

The site received national attention in recent years as LA county moved to return the valuable land to descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. The Bruces bought the land in 1912 along the waterfront and built a resort that provided rare California beach access to Black residents. The family faced violence and harassment from the Ku Klux Klan and white locals, but the establishment continued to thrive until 1924, when Manhattan Beach officials condemned the land and adjacent homes owned by Black residents.

The city used eminent domain to take the family’s property, claiming the site was needed to build a park. Instead, the property sat vacant for decades. The Bruces had sought $120,000 in litigation, but were awarded only $14,000; they were priced out of the area and moved to the east side of LA, where they worked as cooks in other establishments.

An aerial view of three blocks of green lawn with some trees amid residential blocks, that after another block of parking ends at a sandy beach and blue ocean.
Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, California, is pictured on 8 April 2021. Photograph: Dean Musgrove/AP

Descendants of the family fought for years for restitution and return of the land, which became home to an LA county lifeguard-training headquarters and parking lot. In 2022, the county agreed to give the land back to the family, which initially leased the property to the county for its continued use. The move was considered a significant victory in the ongoing fight for reparations in California and across the country. The family sold the land back to the county last year for around $20m.

Bruce’s Beach was one of many Black sites of leisure that were shut down by racist government projects in the early 1900s. Santa Monica, next to Manhattan Beach, was home to a thriving Black community until the construction of a freeway displaced hundreds of families.

Manhattan Beach is less than 1% Black today, and in 2021 the city council voted against issuing a symbolic proclamation to apologize to the Bruces, saying the apology would create liability for the city in future lawsuits. The stolen plaque at Bruce’s Beach park, located just up the hill from the beachfront land, acknowledged the history of “harassment, intimidation, and discrimination by some, including City Hall” against Black property owners in the area:

“The City’s actions at the time was racially motivated and wrong. Today, the City acknowledges and condemns those past actions, and empathizes with those whose property was seized. We are not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. We reject racism, hate, intolerance, and exclusion.”

Manhattan Beach’s mayor apologized to the Bruces and Black residents when unveiling the monument last year, but some argued the text whitewashed the history and that the city has failed to address the ongoing exclusion of Black residents from the area, the LA Times reported.

The plaque is one of numerous historical Black monuments recently reported stolen or vandalized in the US. Earlier this month, more than 100 plaques were stolen from one of LA’s first Black cemeteries. A statue honoring Jackie Robinson was stolen last week from a Little League baseball field in Kansas.

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