It was a grievous case of injustice; the tale of a Black family whose ancestors were essentially robbed of their own land by local government. As George Fatheree read the story in the news of what was once called “Bruce’s Beach,” he was deeply moved. A partner in Sidley’s Real Estate practice, Fatheree saw an opportunity to help. He reached out to the descendants of the Bruce family, hoping to assist them in their poignant quest to right this historical wrong.
Fatheree knew the matter would need to be handled impeccably to establish a successful precedent and to protect against legal attacks: Never before had stolen property been returned to a Black family or community in the United States. The legal and social issues at hand were also timely, with copious discussions on restitution, reparations, and racial justice taking place around the country as we continue to reckon with the past.
With the weight of precedence heavy on his mind, Fatheree, who is based in the firm’s Los Angeles office, recalls acknowledging, “We had to get it right the first time.”
When he first contacted the Bruce family in 2020 while a partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson, Fatheree took great pains to share his background and commitment to ensuring they had the very best pro bono representation. “I told them ‘I’ve been preparing and training my entire professional life to be of service to your family.’”
Members of the Sidley team and members of the Bruce family at a luncheon following the ceremony
Photo credit: Photograph by Steven J. Foley Photography
“We’ll never know what would have happened.”
Charles and Willa Bruce were a young Black couple who, in 1912, bought land in the city of Manhattan Beach, California, and created their own hospitality business, Bruce’s Beach. The venue drew a successful clientele of Black vacationers from across the United States. The Bruces prospered despite a series of frightening intimidation tactics, including arson, by their white neighbors who aimed to drive them away.
When all that failed and the Bruces stood their ground, the city resorted to taking the property from them. In 1924, officials did so under the false pretenses of building a park, claiming eminent domain, which is frequently invoked for public infrastructure changes that disproportionately impact minority communities. The couple requested damages and was given $14,500 for their property, but nothing for the loss of their successful business.
“There was tremendous capacity for wealth creation that could have had an impact far beyond just the Bruce family,” said Fatheree. “We’ll never know what would have happened.”
Fatheree’s team at his prior firm first helped review Senate Bill 796, new state legislation that was passed in California during the summer of 2021, and that was specifically written to pave the way for Los Angeles County to return the land to the Bruce family. On September 30, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law, stating that he hoped the bill would inspire similar legislation to help Black families like the Bruces, who still struggle to recover, financially and emotionally, from the devastating impact of racially motivated displacement.
The multifaceted matter called for the resources of a variety of legal disciplines within Sidley, which has continued the work since Fatheree joined the firm’s Los Angeles office. Sidley’s Real Estate team led the negotiations with Los Angeles County, and the Tax team advised on potential issues in connection with the property transfer. When a lawsuit was filed in 2021 in an attempt to prevent the County from returning the property, members of Sidley’s Litigation team worked together with Munger, Tolles & Olson to successfully defend the Bruce family. In April 2022, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Bruce descendants in the lawsuit.
“It’s exciting how passionate our colleagues are in getting involved,” Fatheree said. “The enthusiasm and support are overwhelming.”
Fatheree’s real estate forte was an ideal fit for the issues surrounding the Bruce’s Beach matter, as his practice at Sidley is quite expansive. He advises on complex commercial real estate transactions, with a particular focus on real estate developers and investors. His work includes representing clients in joint ventures, fund formations, financings, acquisitions and dispositions, leasing, and real estate M&A, with a focus on hospitality, industrial and multifamily property, entertainment venues, sports arenas, casinos, and energy deals. Ironically, he admitted, “Property was the class I hated most in law school. I almost dropped out of law school because of it.”
Beyond that corporate work, Fatheree has dedicated thousands of hours to pro bono matters, representing artists, museums, and cultural institutions in arts-related transactions, as well as causes that strengthen Black culture and communities.
Of what moves him to pursue such matters, Fatheree said, “Pro bono service to nonprofit and community organizations is the oxygen I need. The opportunity to do this type of high impact pro bono work is one of the key things that attracted me to Sidley.”
Moving forward, more work to do.
After several months of intense negotiation between the lawyers for Los Angeles County and the Sidley team, on June 28, 2022, the County voted unanimously to return Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce. The final agreement allows the Bruce family to lease the property back to the County, with an option to sell the land to the County for $20 million.
Following the historic result, Anthony Bruce — a great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa Bruce — remarked: “The return of our family’s property happened thanks to the hard work of many, many people: journalists who kept the story alive, community activists, the California Black Caucus, the governor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and especially George and the rest of the lawyers from Sidley Austin and Munger.”
On July 20, 2022, in a moving ceremony held on the Bruce’s Beach property, Los Angeles County representatives officially turned the deed for the land over to the Bruce family. Fatheree and some of the members of the Sidley team attended the ceremony, which included a performance by students from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and the presentation of a historical plaque that will be placed on the property.
While Fatheree is pleased with the outcome, he remains mindful of the fact that the story of the Bruces reverberates for many other families across the U.S. “We’ve got so much more work to do,” to retrieve what others have lost, Fatheree said.
Seeking justice on behalf of his pro bono clients, particularly the Bruce family, has enabled Fatheree to make vital contributions to the preservation of Black history, which he says has been a tremendous personal and professional privilege. “It’s been my greatest honor.”