Black family's oceanfront land seized in 1929 returned with help from pro bono lawyer
(Reuters) - When Sidley Austin partner George Fatheree learned about the history of Bruce’s Beach, a prime stretch of oceanfront property in Los Angeles County seized by local officials from a Black family nearly 100 years ago, his initial reaction was anger – and determination to help right the longstanding wrong.
Working pro bono as lead counsel to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, he saw his efforts pay off on July 20 when the property, now worth an estimated $20 million, was officially given back to the Bruce's great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick Bruce.
According to Fatheree, it’s a move without precedent – the first time any governmental body in the United States has returned land wrongfully taken from a Black family.
“I feel like I’ve been preparing my entire life and career to be of service to this family to help them get their land back,” the Los Angeles-based commercial real estate lawyer told me.
The case stands as an example of how, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Still, it didn’t happen without serious legal assistance.
Fatheree said the effort involved more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work by a multi-disciplinary team, both at Sidley and his prior firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson, where he was a partner until he moved to Sidley in January.
Munger partner E. Martin Estrada, whose June 6 nomination to serve as U.S. attorney for the Central District of California is pending, told me that his role in beating back a lawsuit seeking to block the deal “meant the world" to him. "It’s the type of work that made me want to become a lawyer,” he said.
The roots of the case date back to 1912, when Willa Bruce purchased a plot of land in Manhattan Beach, followed by a second parcel in 1920, according to a report by the city’s history advisory board. She and her husband Charles opened a seaside resort, where Black families around Los Angeles flocked to enjoy a day at the beach.
The 7,000 square-foot property, used today as a lifeguard training facility, once included a cafe and dance hall.
But white neighbors disapproved. In 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council voted to condemn Bruce’s Beach through eminent domain, ostensibly to build a park – though the land sat empty for decades.
The Bruces asked for $70,000 for the property and $50,000 in damages. They were awarded $14,500 in 1929.
The Los Angeles County government on its Bruce’s Beach webpage describes the taking as “an act motivated by racism and a desire to drive out a successful Black business and its patrons.”
After the 2020 murder of George Floyd and mounting pressure by community activists, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors rallied behind the move to return the property.
“I am so proud of my client,” the board’s lead counsel, Foley & Lardner partner Byron McLain, said via email, noting that the supervisors’ final vote last month approving the transfer was unanimous.
When Fatheree, who had been following the issue from afar, heard in 2020 of the board’s intent, he said he thought the move was "amazing," but he also expected resistance. The Bruce descendants would need extensive legal assistance, he figured, and he wanted to provide it for free.
“Pro bono service to nonprofit and community organizations is the oxygen I need," said Fatheree, whose prior experience includes representing Black Lives Matter Los Angeles in its acquisition of a U.S. headquarters and advising The Underground Museum and the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles.
Once on board, Fatheree found himself in uncharted territory.
“Every deal is unique, but there’s always some playbook. That was absent here,” he said. “We spent a lot of time brainstorming, thinking, ‘What could go wrong?’”
One of the team’s first steps was to hire a genealogist to determine who exactly was a descendant of Charles and Willa Bruce, lest a supposed relative show up at the last minute demanding a portion of the proceeds.
Tax consequences were another concern. Because there has never been an equivalent reparative real estate transaction, Fatheree said, it’s not clear how the IRS will view it.
For insight, he and his team dug into how tax authorities have treated the return of works of art looted by Nazis.
Because the California constitution prohibits giving public funds to private citizens, the transaction also required a legislative fix. Fatheree and his team helped review Senate Bill 796 (a.k.a. the Bruce’s Beach bill), which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2021 to allow the land to be transferred, as well as exempting it from several statutory restrictions.
Fatheree also anticipated the move would be challenged in court. Sure enough, a county resident claimed that returning the land was unconstitutional and sued to block the deal.
Foley’s McLain on behalf of the county as well as litigators from Munger and Sidley countered that the action served a clear public purpose in redressing prior government racial discrimination.
In April, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff agreed, ruling in favor of returning the property. “Redressing past acts of discrimination as well as preventing such acts in the future benefits the whole of the community,” he wrote.
Under the terms of the final deal, the county for the next 24 months will lease the land from the Bruce family for $413,000 in annual rent. The family also has the option to sell the land to the county for $20 million.
Fatheree told me he hopes his work will be a model for others who have had their property wrongfully seized.
What happened to the Bruce family “was not an isolated incident,” he said, adding that he’s been getting at least one call or email every day by people with similar stories.
“Yes, this is a model,” he said. “But we need a lot of models.”
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