Winning Back Stolen Land: A Reason for Hope

By Lisa Moore

A recent land-transfer victory in Manhattan Beach, California, offers a spark of hope for the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) and all those working to save the Moses Cemetery, a patch of land near the McDonald’s on River Road that once held the remains of formerly enslaved people and their descendants. 

In September 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that authorizes the return of a beautiful, block-long stretch of beach to descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, a Black couple that had owned the land a century ago. There they had created a successful resort for African-Americans, whose access to beaches was extremely limited due to segregation and racism. Those same forces led the state to take the Bruce’s land by “eminent domain” in 1924—robbing the family and their descendants of prime real estate that would eventually be worth tens of millions of dollars. 

Aware of the injustice, Manhattan Beach resident and activist Kavon Ward founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach in 2020—then led a successful campaign to raise awareness and eventually convince Los Angeles County to deed the land back to the Bruce family. Last September, Ward joined Newsom as he signed the bill making that dream a reality. Acknowledging that the land had been “wrongfully taken” from the Bruce’s and “should be returned to their living descendants,” Newsom then said, “I want to apologize to the Bruce family,” according to the Los Angeles Times.   

The return of the Bruce’s land is historic. “We’re used to having things taken from us,” says Ward. “This is the first time in history that land will be given back to Black people. It’s setting a precedent, and giving other folks around the nation some hope.” 

Indeed, news coverage of the fight for Bruce’s Beach ignited requests from groups across the country seeking help in cases involving land reparations. To address the need, Ward co-founded the organization Where Is My Land, whose mission is to “help Black Americans reclaim stolen land and secure restitution.” The group already has more than 200 requests for help, which involves research into historic land ownership and helping develop advocacy, media and education campaigns. 

“Property theft is not just a thing of the past,” says Ward. “It’s still happening today.” But she says the victory at Bruce’s Beach offers hopeful lessons for the BACC. “These battles against powerful financial and political interests and entrenched racism are difficult to win,” she admits. But “people have the power to see the change they want.” A successful campaign requires “community engagement,” says Ward. But “It’s important that Black people are leading the movement. White allies are important, but Blacks must lead the effort.” 

Ultimately, to succeed, “it’s going to entail getting a lot of media attention and building relationships with policymakers,” says Ward. “Also, be clear and unapologetic about your demands. Expect them to be met, and keep fighting and pushing forward.” 

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