Bruce’s Beach was one of the few beaches in Southern California in the early 1900s that was not off-limits to African Americans.
The City of Manhattan Beach condemned Bruce’s Beach and forced out the black community in the 1920’s and 30’s. The City Project worked with Bernard Bruce, the Bruce’s grandson, to change the name of the ocean front park back to Bruce’s Beach (a/k/a Bruces’ or Bruce Beach). The public celebrated the name change in a ceremony at Bruce’s Beach on March 31, 2007. It is important to do more than just change the name, however. Interpretive panels and public art should faithfully, completely, and accurately celebrate the proud legacy of Bruce’s Beach and African-American Los Angeles.
When Manhattan Beach was incorporated in 1912, a two-block area on the ocean was set aside for African-Americans. Charles and Willa Bruce built a black beach resort there, the only resort in Southern California that allowed Blacks. Bruces’ Beach offered ocean breezes, bathhouses, outdoor sports, dining, and dancing to African-Americans who craved their fair share of Southern California’s good life.
As coastal land became more valuable and the black population in Los Angeles increased—bringing more African-Americans to Bruces’ Beach—so did white opposition to the black beach. The black beach was roped off. The KKK harassed black beachgoers.
Hayride at Bruce’s Beach circa 1920s
The City of Manhattan Beach pressured black property owners to sell at prices below fair market value and prevailed in the 1920s through condemnation proceedings. Bruce’s Beach and the surrounding black neighborhood were destroyed. Black beachgoers were then relegated to the blacks-only section of Santa Monica beach known as “the Inkwell.” Manhattan Beach tried to lease the Bruce’s Beach land to a private individual as a whites-only beach, but relented in the face of civil disobedience organized by the NAACP.
Bernard Bruce has spent his life telling people about Bruce’s Beach, the beach resort that his family owned. No one believed him because they did not believe black people owned beach resorts. This is why it is important to tell the story of Bruce’s Beach.
Interpretive panels and public art should faithfully, completely, and accurately tell the story of Bruce’s Beach. Best practice examples of public art that celebrate civil rights, democracy, and freedom include the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Manzanar, Biddy Mason Park, and Little Tokyo.
The City Project has worked extensively on equal access to public places including beaches. See our work on Mapping Green Access and Equity and Robert García and Erica Flores Baltodano, Free the Beach! Public Access, Equal Justice, and the California Coast, 2 Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties 143 (2005).