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Manhattan Beach can’t close the chapter on Bruce’s Beach yet

May we stand forever,

faithful to our God,

faithful to our native land.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano waited behind a microphone as the final verse of “The Black National Anthem” floated down the grassy hillside of Bruce’s Beach Park, toward the multimillion-dollar homes abutting the Strand, and finally on the deep blue Pacific Ocean.

“I feel like a race car driver,” the white man confessed to the mostly white crowd gathered at a spot that had been a haven for black beachgoers before the city of Manhattan Beach robbed him. using a racist act of eminent domain.

“Do you know what it does?” Napolitano continued. “Everyone’s just waiting there to see if you crash and burn.”

He did neither on Saturday morning. A long-planned ceremony to dedicate a new plaque – one that describes the many injustices done to Willa and Charles Bruce and several other black families who a century ago owned the beachfront land and ran businesses there – went surprisingly well.

The mayor even did what the rest of the Manhattan Beach City Council stubbornly refused to do. He said he was sorry.

“I’ve heard all the excuses,” he said. “’The families have been compensated. It was a long time ago. An apology is an admission of guilt and an apology will mean prosecution. Absurdity. All. I can apologize myself, and so now I do.

But – to extend the Napolitano race car analogy a bit further – getting to this place that looks like a finish line in the decades-old Bruce’s Beach saga was one hell of a bumpy ride. And yes, the city has crashed and burned more than once.

The story of what happened to the Bruces and other black families has always been known in Manhattan Beach but rarely mentioned, like an open secret. Even though historians have pointed out the facts over the years, locals and elected officials have ignored them. They wanted to forget the past and their city’s contribution to America’s apple pie practice of terrorizing black people and robbing us of generational wealth.

Napolitano takes a picture of the words on the new plate.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

It is only because of an unstoppable group of black activists and the urgency of pandemic-era racial reckoning that has forced Bruce’s Beach into permanent public dialogue.

It is therefore telling that these black activists were nowhere to be found on Saturday. The same goes for black elected officials who have attended previous ceremonies at Bruce’s Beach, including one in which Governor Gavin Newsom symbolically ceded ownership of the beachfront property to members of the Bruce family. Even the city’s first — and only — black mayor, Mitch Ward, didn’t attend.

And conversely, many white elected officials present on Saturday refused to come to these previous ceremonies.

“The history of Bruce’s Beach,” Napolitano said at one point, drawing nods from many white members of the Manhattan Beach City Council, “parallels the history of racism in America at the turn of the last century.” .

And it is indeed the case.

But what Napolitano seemed unwilling to consider is that the history of Manhattan Beach parallels the history of racism in America in This century. This is the story of how white people, used to being in power and being able to decide what history the rest of us should care about, are forced to confront a changing country.

Known for being in the South Bay “bubble”, this city has long been predominantly white and wealthy, even as the rest of Los Angeles County has grown increasingly diverse and impoverished.

Nationally, these kinds of demographic shifts created the perfect conditions for the ugliness of white grievance politics. Locally, it manifests more in the kind of stomping, whining, and general reluctance to change that we saw in Manhattan Beach.

Ward has been through this. Shortly after becoming mayor in 2006, he took up the cause of Bruce’s Beach.

Knowing the history so many others had refused to acknowledge, he wanted to rename the park where Napolitano spoke on Saturday after the Bruce family. Why not, he thought, celebrate Manhattan Beach’s first black entrepreneurs and residents? As a black man, he saw them – and still sees them – as local heroes.

Not everyone agreed.

“The dialogue was tough and difficult,” Ward told me. “There were people who were adamantly opposed – including members of the city council – to the name change and I was stunned. There were friends in the audience who were saying things that I was shocked they were saying.

Ironically, it was then-council member Joyce Karlin Fahey – who in a past life was the judge who put Korean-born dealer Soon Ja Du on probation in the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins – who helped spark the Los Angeles riots of 1992 – which gave Ward the votes he needed for Bruce’s Beach Park.

Manhattan Beach then changed, albeit reluctantly.

“It made me feel even better about my city,” Ward told me. “Because there was a black man running the town and we prevailed. We had a park in our city renamed for a black family.

The plaque that sat there when Ward was mayor was replaced ahead of Saturday’s ceremony. The language there is new – different, more whitewashed and politically acceptable, according to some historians. That’s why he didn’t participate.

“I want to honor Willa and Charles, but not this plaque,” Ward told me.

Children help cut a red ribbon

Napolitano is helped by 8-year-old Benjamin Leggett to cut a ribbon for the unveiling of the new plaque.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Napolitano dismissed the criticism, just as he dismissed the criticism that Manhattan Beach was a racist city and the council members were “white saviors.” On the contrary, he insisted. The city has had “raw discussions regarding past and present racist incidents” and elected officials for subjecting themselves “to the slings and arrows of public scrutiny.”

“It shows that we are never going to please some people,” he said, “some of whom stood in this place 16 years ago to celebrate nothing more than a renaming of this park. .”

It’s funny how Napolitano and the others who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony didn’t mention the black activists who forced the city to have these “raw talks” in the first place, instead thanking the late historian of Manhattan Beach, Bob Brigham, who is white.

May we remain forever faithful to our God, faithful to our native land.

“We are here today to unveil a new plan to reconcile our history, confront some uncomfortable truths and recognize how far we have come while acknowledging how far we still have to go,” Napolitano said, his words floating over the hill. grassy. from Bruce’s Beach Park, to the multi-million dollar homes abutting the Strand. “We are not here to tick a box [or] let’s pat ourselves on the back.

California Daily Newspapers

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