Looking back at family history during the twentieth century, many might think of buying houses, starting a family business, buying estates that would pass on through generations.
A lot of Black people share this narrative, but for many, this also ends with the government or groups like the Ku Klux Klan taking away what they legally purchased and stripping them away from their properties.
Such was the case of the Bruce Family.
Back in 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought land on Manhattan Beach, in Los Angeles County. The family started a resort enjoyed by Black people, but the family and residents were constantly harassed by city residents and by the Ku Klux Klan.
Currently, Los Angeles County is in the process of returning the land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.
Stories like this are repeated all over the country, but this is the first time the land is being given back.
“It sets a precedent. It really does,” said Kavon Ward, co-founder of Where is My Land, an organization that helps Black Americans reclaim stolen land.
A little over a year ago, Ward started working on fighting to get justice for the Bruce family, through a movement called Justice for Bruce’s Beach, after which Where is My Land was created.
After a victory at Bruce’s Beach, Ward is looking to get justice for other families across the country, acknowledging that this is a nationwide issue.
“[It] is extremely common. It’s an epidemic that has taken place over decades across this nation,” she said.
Although usually not discussed broadly, this was something a lot of families went through.
“What was happening to a lot of Black and Brown communities back in the ‘20s and so forth, and before where Black people had property in an area that was white, their houses [and] property would be burned or bullets were shot through the window,” said Michael H. Anderson, author of Urban Magic: Vibrant Black and Brown Communities Are Possible, a book that discusses overcoming obstacles in order to create economic growth.
Terence Dwight Fitzgerald, professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California illustrated another infamous instance of this happening. Fitzgerald has a background in education policy studies, specifically looking at the ramifications of oppression, racism, systemic racism, and institutional racism as it relates to students of color, particularly Black men.
“[It’s] the idea that the systems that were put in the place that stops and also takes away. I mean, we think about things such as let’s say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had the Tulsa Bombings. They call that area Black Wall Street,” he said. “That was an aspiring area for Black (people) around the world. Really, what they had done there, and it wasn’t just there (it) wasn’t the only one. But it was one of the examples of Black on Black growth, Black excellence, and it was destroyed due to, let’s just boil it down, due to racism [and] hate. It was destroyed. Let’s imagine if that was never destroyed, what should have occurred. The possibilities are endless, what could have happened.”
Other examples include Central Park’s Seneca Village in New York City.
Although this issue was common in cities, it is notorious in rural and agricultural settings. During the twenty century, the number of Black farmers fell from 681,790 to just 45,594– or 93%. Historian Pete Daniel analyzes this in light of discrimination by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1920, Black people represented 14% of farmers. Today, Black farmers represent a little over 1% of all U.S. producers.
Anderson said that getting the land back is good for communities.
“I wish more justice was done that way, personally, as a Black person. But the other side is if we did start correcting these wrongs, that would help our families and that generation become more economically prosperous,” he said. “And then Black and brown people could become more economic contributors to the tax revenues that cities and counties need, versus being economically damaged and then perceived as a burden on a city are perceived as a bad place or a ghetto and the truth is what caused by the same action that was done to the Bruce’s Beach family.”
Despite its quick turnaround, getting justice for Bruce’s Beach was no easy task.
To achieve it, Ward helped get the Bruce family connected with lawyers, organized protests alongside the global and local chapters of Black Lives Matter, and created petitions asking for restitution for the family and lost business, and for the violation of civil and human rights, including giving the land back. It was also needed to put pressure on members of the City Council, galvanize the community, and social media campaigns.
Ward also requested local schools to consider teaching the history of Bruce’s Beach to children.
“It was creating strategies for change,” said Ward. “We ask that they defund the police and we’ll allocate funds to things that make somewhat you mandate to Black and Indigenous people in California and specifically within Manhattan Beach.”
Bruce’s Beach found justice, but the movement continues.
“We’ve already gotten justice for the Bruce family as it relates to land being returned,” said Ward. “So from Bruce’s Beach we came, we saw, we conquered, there’s nothing left to do there. Now I’m going to focus on the national initiative of my organization.”
Now, Ward is working with Where is My Land to fight for other Black families to get back their land.
“The next case, we’re gonna be working on is Winston Willis’ case, the Black man who owned 28 businesses in Cleveland, Ohio, who had every single piece of his property stolen from him by the Cleveland police and other people working together with the Cleveland Clinic to ensure they were able to expand at the expense of Winston Willis using his business.”
In the 1960s and 70s, Winston Willis owned the current University Circle area in Cleveland, but as Cleveland Clinic was expanding, Willis was incarcerated and his properties were seized. In the early 1980s, his business was destroyed to make way for the William O. Walker Center.
Under the name of his company, University Circle Property Development, Inc., Willis owned and operated the block of Euclid and 105th, managing two dozen shops, as well as entertainment places and other services, employing more than 400 workers. The area was a thriving spot for Black people.
In Los Angeles, in spite of the win, Ward still wishes Manhattan Beach would take responsibility.
“I would have liked to see the city of Manhattan Beach take accountability for what they did,” said Ward. “The city doesn’t own the land so they can get back at the county owners, so the county decided to give it back. The city of Manhattan Beach has refused to even apologize to the Bruce family. So I’d like for them to take some accountability and pay the family restitution,” said Ward.
She added that she would like to see more collaboration between Indigenous People and Black People, particularly because the land is traditional Tongva land, though there was some collaboration since the Bruce family’s representative is Native American.
“Outside of that, I think some amazing work has been done. And I think that there’s more opportunity for Black and Indigenous people to work together so that we are getting more (back).” Ward wants to make sure that if Indigenous people ever need help, collaboration is always on the table. “Stand by the indigenous people completely,” she said.
Ward isn’t the only one to reflect on the ways in which Black people’s struggles and the historical injustices inflicted on them are similar to those of other peoples of color. This issue is constantly repeated as seen in U.S. history. Urban Magic author Anderson said that cities benefited from taking land from Black and brown people.
“Asian people too; Union Station was Chinatown. The political forces and developers wanted the train station to be there (so), they moved all the Chinese people. Some of the properties were sabotaged and burned. They moved a lot of properties and put them over into what’s now known as Chinatown. The original Chinatown was where Union Station (is). So I want to start seeing it happen more and more. And they made amends for (them),” said Anderson.
Union Station is currently an important part of Downtown Los Angeles, but it was only built after the project was voted on in the mid-twentieth century, and the original Chinatown was moved to its current location.
Having information on such subjects, and getting the population informed, is key in situations like this.
“I want (the) party that’s been offended, that’s been hurt and harmed, to not only get what they feel (is) justice. But to have public acknowledgment of what has occurred. How it happened, how it affected them. The world should be forced to watch and listen and not turn away and just simply read in the headline,” said Social Work Professor Fitzgerald. “We relive the pain of what happened in Nazi Germany, which we should, we should be reminded of what it happened so that it never happens again. We should be doing the same thing for other groups who’ve gone through,” said Fitzgerald. “Hundreds of years of subjugation. Of rape, of murder, of terrorism. Those stories have to live on, and they have to be told.”
Acknowledgment is needed, as well as funds. While Ward and Where is My Land has moved to help other families, they do not charge Black people to help them get back their land that was stolen so they rely on donations to continue the fight.
Visit Neighborhood Housing Services of LA County here if you’re interested to donate to Where Is My Land.