When the past is the present
Malissia Clinton was on a business trip in 2015 when she received a disturbing call from her husband, Ronald.
Someone had thrown a burning car tire at their Manhattan Beach house, igniting the front door. After getting their three children to safety, Ron doused the flames with a garden hose. Repairing the scorched entryway and smoke damage cost more than $500,000, but the toll was far greater.
The Clintons are African American. “It was clear we were being targeted because of our skin color,” says Malissia, a lawyer who’s lived in the area with her pharmacist husband for more than a decade. Although Manhattan Beach has been home to famous African American residents like Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal, it’s not exactly a bastion of black life.
It never was, though Charles and Willa Bruce tried to make it one when they moved to Manhattan Beach in 1912. The first African American residents to buy land on the beach, they purchased lots between 26th and 27th streets. In 1915, they set about building a resort with lodgings, a dance hall, and a café that served African Americans near a patch of private shoreline. They called it Bruce’s Lodge, and it was soon after dubbed Bruce’s Beach. This was big. African Americans were banned from most L.A. County beaches. “Manhattan Beach had virtually no minority population, and it remained that way for a long, long time,” says local historian Jan Dennis.
Life wasn’t easy for the Bruces. KKK members harassed them, along with any African Americans who went beyond the ropes marking the beach’s boundaries. There were reports of at least one cross burning, abusive phone calls, and bogus restricted parking signs, but the Bruces held on. Then in 1924, the city condemned the property and began proceedings to claim it through eminent domain. Though the Bruces sued, they ultimately lost the property and moved to South L.A.
Recounting his family’s story in a letter to the California Coastal Commission, their grandson, Bernard Bruce, wrote, “My grandparents moved here from New Mexico. They worked on the railroad. They saved their money…. They lost everything when the city took Bruce’s Beach. How would you feel if your family owned the Waldorf and they took it away from you?”
What remains is a stone marker in a three-acre park along the Strand that was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2006. “I felt a connection to it before they even tried to burn down our house,” says Malissia. “Bruce’s Beach represents the black experience, and you don’t need a fire to know the black experience and to be pained by it but to also see the strength in our people.”
She and Ron considered moving but changed their minds after witnessing an outpouring of support, including a $35,000 reward raised by neighbors and a candlelight vigil that attracted hundreds. “It sent a message to us that we were not going to be run out of town because of one stupid act,” says Malissia, who’s given a TED Talk on the topic. “Instead we wanted to teach our kids to stay and fight racial hatred.”
The perpetrator was never found, so the Clintons donated the reward money to support multicultural programs in the school district. And they donated their charred door to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for safekeeping.