California Gov. Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Anthony Bruce after signing a bill, "Bruce's Beach Bill."
California Governor Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Anthony Bruce after signing the bill to return Manhattan Beach land to his family.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
  • The state of California signed land back to the Black family it took from years ago.
  • It marks the first time Black Americans have reclaimed land taken from them by eminent domain. 
  • Activists want this to be a precedent, but there are logistical hurdles. 

The Bruce family is getting their land back. It's the first time Black Americans have successfully reclaimed land that the government took from them, raising hopes for families like them who have lost their homes throughout US history.

The family is retrieving ownership through a law signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in September. In 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to seize land from the Bruces, Newsom's office says. Eminent domain is a law that allows the government to take land that is privately owned and re-appropriate it for public use. The process involves compensation for the previous landowners, but they are otherwise given no choice in surrendering their property. 

Newsom signed the land over to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, who left Manhattan Beach after facing racial harassment by the Ku Klux Klan and their white neighbors in the early 1900s. Willa and Charles turned the property into the first resort for Black people on the West Coast, calling it "Bruce's Lodge," when segregation kept them out of most other beaches. 

The KKK tried to burn the resort down. White Manhattan Beach residents harassed the resort's customers. 

The city seized the land, claiming that they wanted to turn it into a public park — they never did. It remained as an empty plot before being transferred to the state, then LA County. 

The Manhattan Beach government explicitly acknowledged the racist motive for seizing the Bruce's Lodge twenty years later in an article by one of the city council members who voted to take it, Frank Doherty, for the Redondo Reflex newspaper. 

"We thought that the Negro problem was going to stop our progress," he wrote in 1945. "We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem, so we voted to condemn them and make a city park there. We had to protect ourselves."

Barriers still exist to reclaiming Black land nationwide

The Bruce family's landmark case is inspiring others who hope it acts as a precedent. Experts say that proving original ownership, however, may be a fraught challenge. 

Kavon Ward, the co-founder of the group Where is My Land, helped lead the fight on behalf of the Bruce family. She told The Washington Post on Monday that she's heard from more than 100 people ready to argue that they have a rightful claim to property that's not currently theirs. 

The Bruce's Manhattan Beach land was relatively clear-cut — their historical claim to the property was well-documented through their resort and the violence they faced. Few other cases are supported by written history. 

The historical seizure of Black property rests at the center of contemporary disparities between Black and white wealth in the US. In the first quarter of 2020, 44% of Black households owned their homes, according to the US Census Bureau, while 73.7% of white families owned theirs. That gap is worse in individual cities — only about 25% of Black families in Minneapolis own their homes, for instance, according to a study by Redfin.  

The typical Black family only has about 10% the wealth of the average White family, according to the Federal Reserve. Phenomena such as redlining, blockbusting — whose impacts still linger even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — are also responsible for the way that Black homeownership and wealth have stagnated in the US. 

When it comes to eminent domain, that kind of relationship with formerly Black-owned land lingers in plain sight: even our most sprawling national icons, like Central Park in Manhattan, aren't immune. 

Read the original article on Business Insider