Bruce family to sell recently returned land to L.A. County for $20 million

The Bruce family will sell two Manhattan Beach parcels to Los Angeles County, officials announced Tuesday, Jan. 3, fewer than six months after the county returned the land that once belonged to their ancestors in an act of property-based reparations.

George Fatheree III, the Bruce family’s attorney, who negotiated the transfer, announced the family’s decision to sell the beachfront land during a KBLA radio interview on Tuesday morning. County Supervisor Janice Hahn then confirmed the upcoming sale, which must occur by the end of the month.

The Bruces formally received the deed to the two parcels on July 20, more than 90 years after Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to take the land from the family’s ancestors for racially motivated reasons. Willa and Charles Bruce, who were Black, were the original owners and operated a seaside lodge for African Americans.

That land currently has a county lifeguard station on it. The county has a two-year lease with the Bruces, with the former paying the latter $413,000 annually.

Willa and Charles Bruce’s heirs sent the county notice of the sale at the end of last week, Fatheree said by phone Tuesday, and the sale must occur within 30 days from then.

Initially, under that agreement, the Bruce family could sell the parcels to the county once the lease ended for $20 million. The price, however, still stands.

“My clients were essentially robbed of their birthright; they should’ve grown up as part of a hospitality dynasty like the Hiltons,” Fatheree said in the radio interview. “The ability to sell the property and invest the funds presents an opportunity for my clients to get a glimpse of that legacy that was theirs.”

The family has already informed the county that it wants to sell the property, according to Hahn, who spearheaded the legislative effort to return the land to the Bruces.

“The seizure of Bruce’s Beach nearly a century ago was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce,” Hahn said in a Tuesday statement, “but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires.”

The land — bordered by 26th and 27th streets, and Manhattan Avenue and The Strand — once housed Bruce’s Beach Lodge, a seaside resort owned by and operated for Black people as a recreational haven during the early 20th century, a time when African Americans lacked access to the coast.

But Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to take control of the land, along with other nearby properties, in the late 1920s. The city’s eminent domain effort, historical records show, was motivated by a desire to force Black people out of Manhattan Beach.

In 1948, the city handed the property, and other beachfront parcels, to the state. California, in turn, gave the land to LA County in 1995 — on the condition that officials didn’t transfer control to anyone else.

In 2020, Bruce’s Beach Park — near the site of the former lodge — hosted a Juneteenth celebration. That celebration, amid a national uprising calling for police reform and an end to systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, brought attention to the racism that stripped the Bruce family of its property.

A movement to return the land followed.

In 2021, State Senate Bill 796 removed the deed restrictions that prevented the county from transferring the property back to the Bruces.

Then in July, the county handed the deed to Willa and Charles Bruce’s great-grandson and great-great grandsons — Derrick, Marcus, Anthony and Michael Bruce — marking what public officials and the Bruce family have called the nation’s first apparent act of property-based reparations.

Although renewing the $30,000 per month lease with the county at the end of the two years may sound like a better deal than one $20 million sale, Fatheree said, the rent payments may also not be enough.

“Different family members are at different stages in life,” Fatheree said, “so the ability for them to receive the funds and invest them for whatever makes sense in their lives is important.”

Talk show host Tavis Smiley, who interviewed Fatheree on Tuesday, said that he feels the decision to sell is an “unexpected U-turn,” given that there are countless instances of government agencies in America stealing and destroying Black-owned land.

“Black people cannot afford to give away land,” Smiley said.

Fatheree, however, said he doesn’t think it’s fair for folks to judge the family’s decision.

“If you and I put ourselves in the shoes of someone who had this horrible thing happen,” Fatheree said during the interview, “it makes sense why it’s positive (that) the family would sell this property back to the county.”

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena — who authored SB 796 — backed the Bruce family’s decision in a statement Tuesday, and highlighted the complex process required before the heirs could develop the land.

The property can only be used for public access and beach recreation, per its title, and to remove those restrictions and develop anything on the parcels would require approval from Manhattan Beach and likely the California Coastal Commission, which Fatheree said could be a multi-year process.

“In no way does selling the property diminish the powerful example that the return of Bruce’s Beach represents in America,” Bradford said in his statement. “They were able to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.”

Related links

Bruce family gets deed back to Manhattan Beach land stolen from Black entrepreneurs in 1920s
New plaque at Bruce’s Beach Park coming by end of year
93 years after being taken, Bruce’s Beach land could be back with family by end of July
How Black activist Kavon Ward found her calling in the fight for Bruce’s Beach
Bruce’s Beach

Fatheree, in his radio interview, elaborated on the uncertainties the heirs would face if they held onto the property.

“You’ve got further uncertainty about ‘can this be developed’ and ‘what can this be developed into,’ the nightmare about what happened to your great-grandparents and ‘could that happen again,’” Fatheree said. “You put those factors together and it doesn’t sound shocking that folks would want to turn around, sell and invest in ways that make sense for themselves.”

Hahn echoed that.

“This fight has always been about what is best for the Bruce family,” Hahn said in her statement, “and they feel what is best for them is selling this property back to the County for nearly $20 million and finally rebuilding the generational wealth they were denied for nearly a century.

“This is what reparations look like,” she added, “and it is a model that I hope governments across the country will follow.”

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