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The Case of Bruce’s Beach as a Leading Edge for Reparation and Restitution Theory

Timothy Mondloch and Meryl Justin Chertoff


The claims of Black Americans for reparations for the injuries of slaveholding, Jim

Crow era discrimination and race-motivated violence and dispossession are ongoing,

and have created a new area of legal doctrine. This week, a state-appointed task force

in California issued its long-anticipated report recommending compensation for an

array of atrocities and harms, which if adopted in its entirety could require payment of

approximately $800 billion.


Novel legal theories based on historical and group harms show promise, but there are

also long-established theories that provide analogies, and may allow for recovery

with less risk of reversal upon judicial review. In addition, advocates may utilize the two-

prong approach of litigation paired with legislative pressure. As the battle for same-sex

marriage and the reversal of reproductive health protection have illustrated, for better

or worse, such a dual strategy can be effective in moving a policy agenda.


Reparations and restitution have often been used interchangeably, but the terms have

different meanings. Derived from international human rights law and norms,

reparations redress violations of human rights by providing a range of material and

symbolic benefits to victims or their families as well as affected communities.


Remedies include compensation, rehabilitation, restitution, and the cessation of continuing violations, truth-seeking, search for the disappeared person or their

remains, recovery, reburial of remains, public apologies, judicial and administrative

sanctions, memorials, and commemorations.


Restitution is one of the subcategories of reparations. According to the US High

Commission on Human Rights, restitution

restore[s] the victim to their original situation before the violation occurred, e.g.restoration of liberty, reinstatement of employment, return of property, return to one’s place of residence.

Restitution has been employed in a variety of circumstances, and has been sought

successfully by the families of Holocaust victims On June 30, 1998 thirty-nine

countries signed a joint pledge to identify art stolen from Holocaust victims and to

compensate their heirs. An advisory panel recommended the return of 6,292 art

objects to their legal owners, most of whom were Jews. The famed “Woman in Gold” by Gustave Klimt were among the works that were returned to descendants who could prove their relationship to a victim.


As he described in a recent visit to students at the University of Miami Law School,

the model of restitution was one legal and policy precedent on the mind of George

Fatheree III, an attorney with Sidley & Austin, as he considered how to counsel the

descendants of the family who had owned, and been wrongfully deprived of Bruce’s

Beach, a recreational property on the coastline in Los Angeles County.


The battle of the Bruce family to reclaim their family’s beach property had been hard

fought for almost 100 years. Located in the present-day Manhattan Beach near Los

Angeles, Bruce’s Beach housed Bruce’s Lodge, a refuge for Black tourists in Southern

California, free from the rampant discrimination and harassment present at the time.

Willa and Charles Bruce took ownership of the property in 1912 and faced obstacles

placed by the local government at every turn. The police limited parking on the beach

to ten minutes, and local business owners no-trespassing signs forced patrons to walk

half a mile to access the lodge. The Ku Klux Klan vandalized the properties, and set

fires to frighten beachgoers and the owners of the popular resort.


Still Bruce’s Beach thrived, attracting a huge number of patrons. Then in 1924, the

City of Manhattan Beach seized the beach using its power of eminent domain. It

claimed the area was needed for development as a public park. Plat maps of the period

show that the only properties to be taken under eminent domain were not contiguous,

but they did share one thing in common—they were all owned by the Bruce family and

used for its resort purposes.


Fatheree came to learn of Bruce’s Beach after working with a group of clients to

acquire a trove of documents and photographs detailing Black social history in the U.S.

The Bruce’s Beach story particularly disturbed him, and while the Bruce family heirs

already were represented by legal counsel, they agreed to work with him in an effort to

get the land back.


While litigation crawled along, a remarkable development allowed speedy resolution

of the claim. In Summer 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the expressions of

grief and anger that followed nationally, a member of the Los Angeles Board of

Supervisors became aware of the land takings at Bruce’s Beach. The Board of

Supervisors was persuaded to unanimously vote to return the beach property to the

descendants of the Bruce family.


A state bill, SB 796, was introduced to return the property to the descendants.

Through Fatheree’s ongoing work crafting details of the bill, including provisions to

insulate the heirs from enormous tax bills, tolling of statutes of limitation, and other

steps, the bill was enacted, and the Bruce family heirs finally received their land back

in June of 2022.


As Mr. Fatheree stated "There was really no precedent or playbook for what [the effort

was] trying to accomplish.” Despite the long history of human rights abuses against the

Black American community in this country, this is the first instance of land repatriation for the

victims of anti-Black racism in the United States, and restored intergenerational wealth

that had wrongfully been taken by state action from the heirs. It was important, he

explained, to get the statute and settlement “exactly right,” so as to not risk foreclosing

other groups similar claims.


No two situations are the same. The case for restitution of particularized property and,

on a more modest reparations payments for slave labor and human rights crimes to

relatives of victims of the Holocaust was aided by the massive post-war settlement

with Germany over an array of war crimes. The descendants of Japanese-Americans

interned during the Second World War have received monetary settlements and an

apology from the US Government, but the settlements were not on par with their

financial losses in current dollar value. The scale of compensation for crimes against

Black enslaved persons, victims of lynching, massacre, or property expropriations are

more massive but also harder to particularize.


Reparations for enslavement face substantial legal barriers including standing and

timeliness. Professor Eric Miller’s statement to a Congressional committee examining

the challenge of reparations explains why these claims are difficult to successfully

prosecute:

In suing on behalf of formerly enslaved people, for example, all formerly enslaved persons have been dead for at least a generation; no Americans living today have directly injured African Americans by enslaving them; descendants of slaves cannot often cannot show harms directly attributable to contemporary individuals; and it is difficult to determine who should get what and how much

Statement Before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the

Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Hearing on HR40 and the Path to

Restorative Justice June 19, 2019


The Bruce’s Beach case shows how, in a case where the harm and the proper plaintiffs

can be particularized, a two-pronged effort that combines litigation with political

pressure may at times be more effective than litigation alone.


It is useful to compare the Bruce’s Beach case to other efforts in this space. A

multidistrict case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination in

loans to Black farmers ; litigation to obtain reparations to the families of victims of the

Tulsa Race Massacre; a modest settlement authorized by the Florida Legislature to the

families of victims of the Rosewood Massacre in rural Florida and an agreement by

Georgetown University to make partial amends for the sale of 272 enslaved people

during early years by providing admissions preferences to the descendants of those

affected have been the result of protracted efforts. These cases have been hard-fought,

and in some instances there have been countersuits.


Of these well-publicized examples, the claims by victims and their descendants in the

Tulsa Race Massacre provide the closest analogy to the Bruce’s Beach case. The

settlement with the family of victims of the Tulsa massacre relied, in part, on a report

commissioned pursuant to an act of the Oklahoma legislature, acknowledgment of

state action in conjunction with the Tulsa murders; and the fact that there are today

descendants of the victims who can directly trace their family ties to those victims.


Advocates for reparations should take note of the foundational benefits of working on

behalf of the claims of persons with specifically identifiable takings and land theft

claims; and Fatheree’s insight that state legislative action can be a useful complement

to litigation, perhaps speeding the resolution in that case.


The heirs to the Bruce family in 2023 resold the land at Manhattan Beach to LA County for $20 million. The step has attracted ire from some, who viewed the victory as one which

should be valorized, and its fruits preserved on behalf of the entire Black American

community. But with counterlitigation threatened, unfriendly neighbors lurking still,

and the barrier to development due to state and national coastal development

regulation, the family, who no longer live in California, chose to monetize the asset:

just what owners do.


In this, their actions are very similar to the families who received back Nazi-looted art;

in almost all cases, the works were promptly resold.


The remarkable result in the Bruce’s Beach case opens the door for other efforts by

Black Americans to receive land back in areas across the country by creating a

pathway—combining legal advocacy with the lobbying of local officials—for those

efforts to be successful. Eventually, it could be a cornerstone for a wider settlement of

historical claims. While this model is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and any

successful effort is going to require intimate knowledge of local policy, the success of

the Bruce family heirs offers groups and individuals across the country a pathway

towards reparations for the injustices they suffered.

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