Though the racial wealth gap has been part of the fabric of America for centuries, the actions necessary to dismantle it are not a mystery. Time and again, property and homeownership have proven to be effective means of building long-term wealth. However, Black families and individuals have been—and are—systematically excluded from building wealth through property, first explicitly by law and then de facto by structural racism. To close the racial wealth gap altogether, addressing the racist history of property is critical.
On March 16, Arabella Advisors hosted a Future of Black Wealth Salon at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California to discuss the role of reparations in closing the racial wealth gap. Managing Director Sharyn Church and Head of Equity and Belonging Andrew Plumley were joined by attorney George Fatheree III, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP and the legal advocate who spearheaded the landmark Bruce’s Beach case. We were honored to hear him share the history of the land, how he and his team used the legal system to advance reparative justice, and how Bruce’s Beach might guide future efforts to secure reparations that help address the racial wealth gap. Below, we’ve gathered four takeaways from our conversation.
1. Bruce’s Beach exemplifies a racist compulsion to dismantle Black wealth.
The story of Charles and Willa Bruce is an American story, centering two entrepreneurs pursuing the American dream. The couple moved to Manhattan Beach, California shortly after the turn of the century, and Willa opened a sandwich stand on the beach to supplement her husband’s income. Within eight years, the Bruces owned multiple properties and successful businesses on the beachfront.
With affluent Black beachgoers and families from across the West coming to Bruce’s Beach to vacation and buy property, Manhattan Beach soon grew into a thriving Black community—but this haven of economic prosperity was soon taken away. “At the same time the Bruces were building a successful business and shaping the community,” Fatheree said, “you saw a racist and violent backlash from the white majority.” When threats and vandalism failed to drive wealthy Black families away, the city of Manhattan Beach seized the land through eminent domain, drawing the lines to take every piece of land owned by Black families. Bruce’s Beach closed in 1924, and the once-prosperous Bruces died in poverty. To put this egregious loss in context, the Bruces were acquiring their property at the same time Conrad Hilton was building the Hilton hotel empire—now one of the largest hospitality corporations and philanthropies in the world.
2. A century later, steps toward reparative justice are possible.
The racially motivated seizure of Bruce’s Beach robbed future generations of the Bruce family of the long-term wealth that land could have provided. So when the opportunity arose to challenge the century-old eminent domain decision, Fatheree and his legal team were ready to step in and assist today’s descendants of the Bruces in reclaiming the land their ancestors had owned.
“This had never been done before,” Fatheree said of the legal proceedings. “We had to think multiple steps ahead, considering who would oppose our efforts and why.” Sure enough, lawsuits arose in an attempt to stop Fatheree’s efforts, and the team ultimately provided more than $1 million in pro bono legal services to manage the case. In 2021, the team’s efforts paid off: Governor Newsom signed a bill that allowed the California Coastal Commission to transfer the land back to the Bruces’ descendants.
In Fatheree’s view, this case provides one possible model for reparations through land repossession. Community land trusts are another way local governments can turn property into engines for Black wealth, as are interventions providing direct financial assistance to Black families purchasing property.
3. The history of stolen Black property in the US is vast and varied.
The Bruce’s Beach case was undoubtedly a win for the family, who were able to sell the land for nearly $20 million—a sum that opened doors to new business ventures, educational opportunities, and other pathways for a prosperous life. It was also a symbolic win on behalf of the Black individuals and families who have been excluded and deprived of property ownership for centuries.
Early in the history of our country, Black people were legally prohibited from buying and owning property. Even after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Black communities have faced a long line of social and systemic forces that make it more difficult to buy property, from redlining and restrictive zoning laws to racist banking policies that prevent them from accessing home loans. Further, Black families often faced—and continue to face—harassment when moving into predominately white areas, and stories of being forced to vacate property under the threat of violence are common. “I’m haunted by the immeasurable magnitude of what we’ve lost as a community,” said Fatheree, describing the immense generational wealth snatched away by racism.
4. Philanthropy should help build long-term wealth for Black communities.
As the Bruce’s Beach case clearly demonstrates, legal efforts and policy change can make concrete progress toward reinvesting wealth in Black communities. However, truly closing the racial wealth gap requires a concerted, multi-domain effort, and philanthropy’s role is critically important. The social sector must invest in solutions that build long-term wealth for Black communities.
Fortunately, we already know what levers are most effective in closing the wealth gap, as Arabella’s recent webinar in partnership with the Council on Foundations discussed. We know that homeownership is a powerful lever in wealth-building, and there are concrete steps philanthropy can take to make homeownership a reality for more Black families, such as down-payment support programs or foreclosure prevention assistance. Other long-term levers such as investing in Black entrepreneurs, bolstering historically Black colleges and universities, and supporting on-the-ground advocates and movement-builders who are working to narrow the racial wealth gap are also squarely within philanthropy’s wheelhouse. The harm to Black wealth has already been done, systemically and over centuries. The work to restore long-term Black wealth must begin in earnest now—and philanthropy must take a leading role.
On behalf of Arabella Advisors and all the attendees at last month’s salon, we wish to extend our sincerest gratitude to George Fatheree III for generously sharing his time, expertise, and insight. We also wish to thank The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens for graciously hosting the salon and providing a place of beauty and refuge for this timely and important conversation.
If you would like more insights into the salon and the social sector’s role in closing the racial wealth gap, we invite you to listen to the audio recording and explore Arabella’s Racial Wealth Gap hub, which hosts a variety of blogs, resources, and information about how to stay connected to the work of building the future of Black wealth. We look forward to partnering with you.