Advocates push nationwide movement for land return to Blacks after victory in California

professional headshot of William Darity

By Erica Werner and Troy McMullen

December 6, 2021

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — A Black family’s successful fight to reclaim a picturesque stretch of Southern California shoreline has ignited a national movement, with activists eyeing White-owned properties around the country they say rightfully belong to African Americans.

A landmark law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30 provided for a seaside park in Manhattan Beach to be returned to the Bruce family, which owned the land before the city used eminent domain to seize it in 1924. The victory was hailed as a watershed moment, the first example of Black people forcing the return of property that was taken from them by one means or another, often violently, over the years.

At the same time it raised a question: Would the Bruce’s Beach case be a one-off, or a tipping point in a national struggle over Black land ownership? Activists and scholars say there are other similar cases nationwide, but proving them — and getting the current property owners to cooperate — will be a different matter, forcing another chapter in the nation’s racial reckoning and raising thorny questions about how to right past wrongs.

“The reason it’s getting so much attention now is there’s been a precedent set and that’s what’s giving hope to other families,” said Kavon Ward, who helped lead the successful fight on behalf of the Bruce family and has co-founded a group called Where Is My Land aimed at advocating for other Black people who are trying to reclaim lost and stolen land. “This is just the beginning.”

In recent years that history has gotten more attention, and after Ward formed the group Justice for Bruce’s Beach in 2020, a county supervisor took an interest in the case, as did state officials. It still took months of advocacy to get the land back for the Bruce family, and even required a change in state law to allow L.A. County to move forward with the land transfer.

Few other cases will be so straightforward, said William A. Darity Jr., a scholar at Duke University who co-authored a book on reparations published last year.

“I just think there are thousands of these cases, and a very small percentage of them have the degree of specificity that the Bruce Beach case does where you know exactly who owned the property, how it was taken and by whom,” Darity said.