Wave Staff and Wire Reports
LOS ANGELES — An attorney who represented the Bruce family in its battle with Manhattan Beach and also challenged racially restrictive housing covenants more than 100 years ago was honored Sept. 25 by the city.
The intersection of Second and Spring streets in downtown Los Angeles was designated Willis O. Tyler Square in honor of Tyler, whose law office was located at 224 S. Spring St.
Attorneys George C. Fatheree III and George Mallory joined City Councilman Kevin de León during the ceremony. It is the first intersection dedicated to an “African-American civic pioneer, lawyer and civil rights leader” in downtown, according to de León’s office.
Tyler represented Charles and Willa Bruce in their unsuccessful legal action against Manhattan Beach after the city had seized the property in 1924 through eminent domain under the false pretense of developing a park.
Prior to that he represented H.L. Garrott, a Black police officer who had purchased a home for his family in South Los Angeles in 1919. A deed recorded for the property prohibited it from being sold to any person of “African, Chinese or Japanese descent.”
When the Title Guarantee & Trust Co. discovered that Garrott owned the property, it sued to force him to relinquish title without compensation.
Tyler represented Garrott and argued that the racially restrictive covenant violated the due process clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. A state appellate court ruled in Garrott’s favor in Title Guarantee & Trust Company v. Garrott.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t outlaw racially restrictive covenants until almost 30 years later in the Missouri case Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948.
“The dedication of this intersection is not just a symbolic gesture, but a commitment to the values of justice, equality and unity,” de León said in a statement. “Even when we fall off track from our values and principles as a society or even individuals, heroes like Willis O. Tyler, help redirect us — put us back on track to adhere to the values that make us a stronger society and better human beings.”
Taking part in the ceremony was Fatheree, who led the team of attorneys who secured the return of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce nearly a century after it had been taken by Manhattan Beach as a result of racial animus.
Also present was Mallory, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of Sigma Pi Phi. Perry was among the founding members of the chapter of the post-graduate fraternity primarily for eminent Black professional men.
Tyler was born July 19, 1880, in Bloomington, Illinois. His father shortly after his birth and his mother died when he was 9 years old, leaving Tyler to be raised by an aunt who had been a leader in the Bloomington station of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses in the early to mid-19th century used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and from there to Canada.
Tyler enrolled in Indiana University when he was 16, where he studied for two years before enlisting in 1898 in the Indiana Colored Volunteer Infantry to fight in Cuba in the Spanish American War. He received a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in 1902 and graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1908.
Tyler died June 18, 1949, at age 68 at his home in Harvard Heights after practicing law in Los Angeles for more than 35 years.