Attorney George Fatheree said his entire professional career had prepared him for the type of experience and expertise it took to return Bruce’s Beach, a property in Manhattan Beach, to the African American family who owned it and lost it in the 1920s. From his beginnings as a consultant, creating solutions for large companies, to his work in public education reform to his journey into law, Fatheree has made setting things right a priority.
In 2019, when he read an article about what happened to the Bruce family, how Charles and Willa Bruce purchased the land in 1912 and how racial tensions led to an eminent domain scam that caused them to lose it in 1927, he had almost “a thirst” to see their descendants receive justice.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘something’s got to be done about this,’” Fatheree recalled during a recent interview with the Sentinel.
“I remember going to the office and recruiting one of my associates to work with me. I wanted to make sure everything was done right because last thing I wanted to do was get the family’s hopes up [and not deliver]. So, we started researching first about what types of claims they could file and also what types of claims [the opposition] could bring…”
Attention to the Bruce case started growing when a local community advocate in Manhattan Beach set out to put a plaque in the area, which was then owned by Los Angeles County that acknowledged the family as its original owners.
“It was during the aftermath of George Floyd murder and there was a wave of attention on injustices [surrounding] Black people,” Fatheree explained.
“Through [this person’s] advocacy and through media coverage, word got to the L.A. County Supervisors about what was going on. [Supervisor] Janice Hahn said it was horrible and they ought to give it back to the family…
“When I heard that I thought two things. I thought one, ‘this is amazing’ and second I thought, ‘oh my goodness, this is going to be really important because there are going to be a lot of people who don’t want this, who are going to try to stop this. And there are going to be other people who are going to try to follow this as a model. And so either way what that means is this has to be done exactly right. It’s never been done before. There’s no playbook…’”
As soon as the county made that decision, Fatheree said, a lawsuit was filed, claiming that it would be a misuse of taxpayer funds. Unfortunately, he added, these types of tactics came as no surprise to him and his team at Sidley Austin LLP, where he is a real estate partner.
“As soon as the family hired me our team started thinking about what [opponents] would try to do to stop this,” Fatheree said.
“If someone wants to file a lawsuit what are they going to claim? Because we were able to think ahead about those issues, we were able to work with the California State [Legislature] as it passed Senate Bill 79 (which made that transfer possible) and the county of Los Angeles to make sure that the findings that the state had and that the
resolution the county adopted would all help provide protection and defense for the family. Our work paid off because the judge in the court case agreed with our position.
“What was really amazing was the judge could have [simply said] that the County is legally entitled to return the property to the family, but he went further. He not only said the county can do this, but he said by doing this… by taking responsibility for a past injustice, Los Angeles County is actually strengthening the legitimacy of our democracy.”
Fatheree said it took the talents of many lawyers in the firm in different areas of expertise, like tax law and real estate law, and thousands of hours of pro bono work. He still keeps in touch with the family, but has moved on to his next passion project. Currently, he is working with a group of business owners in Los Angeles’ historic Leimert Park where the threat of gentrification is looming.
“What you have is a group of Black-owned small businesses, who lease the real estate that their shops are on,” he explained.
“Every year rents are going up and fancy businesses are coming in. Soon, they won’t be able to afford to stay in that community. Right now I am in the process of advising a group of six retail tenants and we’re actually buying the land that they rent, so that they become the owners of the property and at the same time we’re putting the property in something called a community land trust, which ensures that there’s restrictions on what type of businesses can use and occupy that property and what types of businesses can be forced out.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County will rent the Bruce property for about $400,000 a year and the lease agreement provides for their ability to purchase the property from the family at a later date.