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‘Just to Stop Black People from Getting the Justice’: An Estate Attorney Attempted to Block Transfer of Stolen Land Back to Bruce Beach Family Heirs; A Judge Said Not So Fast

A Black California family is on track to reclaim their beachfront property stolen from them by the government with racist motivations. Descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce are breathing a sigh of relief after a recent court ruling helped save land that rightfully belongs to them from slipping out of their hands.

“There’s only four living heirs left,” said Bruce family spokesman, Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard. Widely known as ‘Bruce Beach,’ is a three-acre beachfront property located on Manhattan Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles County, California.

Last October when Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed Senate Bill 796 into law, it cleared the way for the state to return stolen land to descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce.

At the time, the family thought they were on the verge of taking back their land, until Palos Verdes Estates Attorney, Joseph Ryan filed a lawsuit trying to block the land transfer just a few weeks after the legislation was signed.

“We knew there would be folks who didn’t want to see the Bruces get this property back and Mr. Ryan proved us right,” said George Fatheree, attorney representing the Bruce family in its land reclamation fight.    

Shepard feels the lawsuit field by Ryan was racially motivated.

“Yes, it was racially motivated, he had no other reason to do it, there wasn’t any money out of his pocket, he wasn’t going to get any money from it, it was just to stop Black people from getting the justice they deserve,” Shepard said.

Ryan did not return Atlanta Black Star’s calls for comment, but claimed in his suit, transferring the land over to the Bruce family did not serve a public purpose and it would be unconstitutional. The judge disagreed.

“What the law says is the government can transfer its property, transfer its funds or use its resources in a way that serves a public interest,” Fatheree said of the judge’s decision. He went on to say the land transfer would be of public interest because of how it was stolen in the first place.

“Doing so does serve a public purpose and that public purpose is addressing past racial discrimination by the government,” he said.

Fatheree highlighted a portion of Judge Mitchell Beckloff’s comments on the case by saying, “Righting a government wrong perpetrated in breach of our core and fundamental constitutional principles works to strengthen governmental integrity, represents accountability in government and works to eliminate structural racism and bias. The government’s act of rectifying a prior egregious wrong based on racism fosters trust and respect in government.”  

Charles and Willa Bruce bought their beachfront property in 1912 for a little more than $1,200. The couple built a business on their beachfront property which served as a place of refuge for African-Americans seeking beach access without fear of racism and harassment, but the Ku Klux Klan and other racists at the time routinely terrorized Black patrons and the Bruce family.

Shepard says the city of Manhattan Beach seized the Bruce property in 1924 through eminent domain, claiming they would turn it into a park, and despite years of fighting to keep their land, by 1929 the Bruce family only received $14,000 for their property once it was taken. The couple died just a few years later.

Shepard is grateful Senate Bill 796 was signed into law. He says without it the family could have lost their 100-year fight to reclaim the land amid attorney Ryan’s lawsuit.

“He mounted a serious opposition to us getting that land and he brought up the right statutes had it not been for the legislation we got passed, that would have stopped the transfer of that land,” Shepard said.

Now with the latest hurdle crossed, the Bruce family hopes they can focus their attention on what to do with the land. “The plan for the land is to allow the county to keep their lifeguard training stations there for at least 30 years and pay us at least fair market value rent,” Shepard said.

Although the Bruce family has a plan in place to move forward, they hope Los Angeles County moves quickly with the land transfer before someone else upset the wrongs of a racist past are being corrected presents another roadblock.

“We’re nervous someone else may pick up and file a suit so there’s a lot going on so there’s good reason for us to want this expedited,” Shepard said nervously of any future lawsuits possibly preventing the Bruce family from land ownership.

Shepard says the direct descendants with rights to the land are the grandsons of Charles and Willa Bruce and one of the grandsons’ sons, making up the four direct living heirs.

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