In 1912, Black entrepreneurs Charles and Willa Bruce purchased a beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, California. “Bruce’s Beach,” which included a dance hall and café, was a favorite destination resort for Black families. In 1927, eminent domain was used by the city of Manhattan Beach to seize the property with the plan to create a park. With increased national awareness and the Black Lives Matter movement, a renewed demand for justice propelled the issue into the state and national discussion. On September 30, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill No. 796, which cleared the path for the Bruce’s heirs to have the property returned to them.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin moderates a discussion between George C. Fatheree III, a real estate attorney with Sidley Austin, LLP, and Kavon Ward, a land-rights activist and co-founder of “Where is my Land.” George has a pro bono engagement representing the living descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce and will share details of the legal actions regarding the property. Kavon was instrumental in bringing awareness to Bruce’s Beach injustice and racial discrimination and land rights to the national conversation. They will discuss the details in this video.
Related Videos from This Series
- California beachfront land taken from Black family returned in ceremony, Reuters, July 21, 2022
- Op-Ed: Why Bruce’s Beach may be an outlier in terms of reparations for Black Americans, Los Angelis Times, February 2, 2022
- The Time is Right: Starting a National Reparations Policy, Face2Face Africa, January 29, 2022
- A Black family got their beach back — and inspired others to fight against land theft, National Public Radio, October 10, 2021
- LA County prepares for Bruce’s Beach land transfer, Los Angeles Daily News, October 5, 2021
- Bruce’s Beach to be returned to Black family 100 years after city ‘used the law to steal it,’ The Guardian, October 1, 2021
Photos and Video Provided by
Bruce's wedding photo courtesy of the California African American Museum
Video of Bruce's Beach protest by Jessa Williams
Photos of Bruce's Beach protest by Starr L. Swift, Swift Productions
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: In 1912, a black couple, Charles and Willa Bruce, purchased a beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, near Los Angeles, California. Bruce’s Beach, which included a dance hall and café, became a destination resort for Black families. Racial segregation and tensions grew in the 1920s and the property was seized by eminent domain in 1927 under the pretense of building a city park. In 2007, Manhattan Beach City Council acknowledged its history of discrimination, and the property was renamed Bruce’s Beach.
On Juneteenth, 2020, with the passion of the Black Lives Matter movement and a new awareness of racial injustices, a commemorative event was held to draw attention to the Bruce’s Beach injustice and return the property to heirs. Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach resident and founder of Justice for Bruce's Beach, coordinated the Juneteenth event. She and attorney George Fatheree, a partner at the law firm of Sidley Austin with a robust pro bono practice who has represented Black Lives Matter Los Angles, are with us today. Our two guests were instrumental in the fight for justice, equity and reparations. They will discuss their work, our country’s history of oppressive eminent domain practices, and the future of Bruce’s Beach. Could each of you tell us how you got involved in Bruce’s Beach? George?
George Fatheree: Thanks Terry, I’m excited to be here. It’s always a pleasure to see my good friend Ms. Kavon Ward. For me, it started the same way that it started with a lot of folks who were compelled to get involved. I read an article about Bruce’s Beach in the newspaper, and like others who read that story, I was struck by the injustice and also inspired by the business success of these amazing entrepreneurs, whose story we had never heard, and whose legacy had been so prematurely erased, or so it seemed. As a lawyer, the first thing I did was research what the Bruce’s heirs’ rights were.
We’re taught as lawyers that if you or your family have been wronged, the law should provide a remedy to right that wrong. I recruited a colleague and we researched legal claims that the Bruce heirs and their descendants might be able to bring to recover the property. Now, unfortunately, our legal system does not make it easy for descendants of Black people who had their land wrongly taken on the basis of race 100 years ago, to get the family’s land back. There are a number of legal hurdles, some of them fairly insurmountable that could prevent these types of claims from going forward in the courts.
It’s one of a number of examples of our legal system and our social policies falling short of the promise of justice for all. In light of the legal impediments that our research revealed, I initially refrained from reaching out to try and contact members of the family. The last thing I wanted to do was try to awaken hope for these folks who were already burdened by the injustice done to their great-grandparents and their great-great-grandparents. So, I waited until Ms. Ward came along and Ms. Ward ignited a grassroots and community-led, but really a national movement to return Bruce’s Beach to the heirs of the family.
Now once Los Angeles County had determined to return the land, I thought that, even though the family doesn’t have to bring a lawsuit to get the land back, it’s still important that they receive quality legal representation. Two things came to mind. First, this has the potential to serve as a national model to communities around the country and world, about how to engage in a process of racial economic reconciliation. My second thought was, there’s going to be some folks who don’t want to see this happen and who may try to stop it. Both thoughts led me to the same conclusion. This has to be done exactly right. There’s no room for error and the family’s going to need strong legal representation.
So, at that point, I made contact with the family, I told them about my training, my experience, and perhaps most importantly, my passion and dedication to getting their family’s land back; and doing it in a way that could potentially serve as a model for other efforts throughout the country. And the family retained me. But I do want to make clear that none of my efforts could have gone forward without the work that Kavon did. So, Kavon, would you mind telling me how you got involved?
Kavon Ward: Sure, absolutely. I got involved in 2020, shortly after George Floyd was murdered by the police. I was enraged, I wanted to do something. So, I had created an organization that focused on making racial changes around the South Bay and prior to creating that organization I was sent a blog post linked that talked about what had happened to Charles and Willa Bruce and initially I didn’t pay attention to it because I was so concerned about Black lives being lost. But the second time it was sent to me, I paid attention. I read it fully. And there was just this anger inside of me and this passion and this fire to do something about it.
And so, the group I helped co-found, we decided to hold a picnic at Bruce’s Beach to illuminate what had happened to Charles and Willa Bruce, these Black entrepreneurs, who were essentially co-founders of Manhattan Beach. And at that picnic, Vivian and Patricia Bruce were there, and they were thanking me for shining light on what had happened to the Bruce’s and they also asked if I could speak to their cousin who had been doing some genealogical research for the family, and I did. And given my policy background and my advocacy background, I asked if I could help them not just create awareness around what happened, but to get the land back.
And it seemed far-fetched, I don’t think folks thought it could happen, but something moved me to say, “I’d like to see some policy change that would deed the land back to the family.” And so, from that point on, I just started to think about creative ways to ensure that this would happen.
And so, I organized within the community, I lined myself with organizations like Black Lives Matter, I created a petition with Black Lives Matter through Color of Change, I attended very harmful and abusive city council meetings, I had a march in protest. There were a number of things I did to shed light on what had happened and to call for change, and essentially when the L.A. Times covered the story, County Board of Supervisors heard, they took action, and here we are now.
Terrence M. Franklin: So, where are we now with Bruce’s Beach?
George Fatheree: Well, the short answer is that we’re not quite done. We’ve cleared some major hurdles, most notably the passage of legislation in California that allows the county to return the property to the Bruce family. You see, after the city of Manhattan Beach took the land from the family in the 1920s, the city transferred the land to the state of California, and then the state transferred the land to the county of Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. As part of that transfer from the state to the county, the state made the county promise that the county would never transfer the property, and if the county did try to transfer the property, the property would automatically go back to the state.
So, this past September, the governor signed a bill that clears the way for the county to transfer the property back to the family. And at the end of last year, the state and county formally amended the deed to the property, to remove the transfer restrictions. So, those are both important milestones.
There are two big things going on right now. First, as we always expected, a lawsuit has been filed to prevent the county from returning the land to the family. On behalf of the Bruce family, we have intervened in this lawsuit and we’re working with the county of Los Angeles to defend its right, to return the land to the family. Their hearing’s scheduled for the case in February, and we’re confident that the county will be successful in defending the lawsuit. Second, we’re in active negotiations with the county to finalize and memorialize the terms and conditions of the transfer.
There are a number of issues involved in doing this right. For example, how our tax liability is handled, what indemnifications or protections are provided to the family. So, we’re working through these types of issues with the hope of having the property returned to the family by the spring of this year. Now because we’re in the middle of both the litigation and the transfer negotiations, I’m reluctant to get into too much detail, but my hope is that you’ll consider having us back once the land has finally been returned to the family.
Terrence M. Franklin: That sounds exciting. Well, what does all this mean for other people and other communities facing similar situations, either from a legal perspective, George or, from an advocacy and policy perspective, Kavon?
Kavon Ward: What it means from an advocacy perspective is that folks should understand that there are huge legal barriers in place that prevent families from getting land back that was stolen from them. One of which is the statute of limitation. So, it is extremely important that these families build community, they mobilize their communities, they organize their communities, and they use the media to demand the changes that they want. Media is extremely important because if folks don’t know about it, folks can’t do anything about it.
And so, they have to hold their government officials accountable, they have to challenge the status quo. And I think for me, it means creating policy change, national policy change, that these people can get remedied. You know, policies like eminent domain, are not policies from the past. They’re policies that are taking, that are being implemented now. I have a family out in Austin, who is fighting Texas because Texas is trying to take land to build a highway.
I mean this is something that happens in Black communities all the time. Folks see land, they see they want it, they want to use it, and they run Black folks off their land. And they don’t pay them, if, what, for what, for what the land is worth and I think that’s a huge problem.
Terrence M. Franklin: These are ongoing issues and we try to cover a bunch of them in this series, Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future. Either one of you want to give any sort of, final last words or, Kavon, you want to tell us a little about your organization Where Is My Land that you started?
Kavon Ward: Sure. So, Where Is My Land is a national organization that I co-founded. It was given birth through Justice Ragusa’s speech. You know, when folks started learning about what had happened to Charles and Willa Bruce and saw that policy actually changed and ensured this family gets the land back, they became hopeful. There were families who had been fighting to get their land back for 30, 40 years but to no avail.
So, my national organization works on, we use research, advocacy, and technology to see if we can help Black folks reclaim land or get restitution for land that can’t be given back. And so, yeah, that’s what we do. We are, we have about 200 families now that are requesting our help and so right now, we’re trying to build infrastructure, scale up so that we can help as many of them as possible, at no charge.
Terrence M. Franklin: That’s awesome. Well, we’ll be including information about your organization and the efforts that you’ve been putting in as well as other resources on the website for the Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future. Any last-minute words or thoughts before we go?
George Fatheree: I just, I want to say thanks again. And I really want to underscore the point that Kavon made. As I mentioned before, there are potentially insurmountable legal barriers that can make it very difficult for descendants to get land back through our court systems under current law. And the strength of what Kavon’s organization is doing is that it’s organizing at the grassroots level and it’s impacting policy, and it’s influencing lawmakers. And that’s a key focus for us right there. So, thank you Kavon for your leadership and efforts on that front.
Kavon Ward: Yes, absolutely, and so I just want to piggyback off of what you were saying, Mr. Fatheree, like this is a huge undertaking, a huge legal undertaking as well, and we need lawyers to help. So, if you’re listening and you want to get involved in a movement that is going to change the trajectory of like land theft and Black land being returned, look at, look for us. We are www.whereismyland.org and we need help, as much help as possible. Also, we need more funds, so please donate.
Terrence M. Franklin: The Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future video series has examined several property discrimination issues, including “Heirs Property and Generational Land Loss,” “Black Famers, Land Loss and the Racial Economic Gap,” and the historical roots of discrimination and land in “40 Acres and a Mule: Reparation and the Estate Tax.” We recommend that you educate yourself on black land loss and the United States’ history of taking land from black citizens, AND support local and national organizations like Kavon Ward’s Where is My Land.
Please visit ACTEC, actec.org/diversity for resources on this and other related topics. And be sure you subscribe to ACTEC’s YouTube channel to be informed of new videos as they become available.