When the Hartford kids invaded the beaches

Cover of the book "Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline"Few talk about Ned Coll today, but in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s he was constantly in the news. Raised in a middle-class, Irish-American household in Hartford, he quit his insurance job in 1964 to start the Revitalization Corps, a nonprofit whose volunteers provided tutoring, employment training, and other help to residents of the city’s largely African-American North End. The Corps also staged public confrontations to expose racism in Connecticut–not just the blatant kind, but the subtle racism of people whom Coll dubbed “armchair liberals.”

That’s why, starting in 1971, Coll and company began drawing attention to Connecticut’s beaches, many of which were effectively off-limits to people of color. There was no outright prohibition, but since the beaches ran through predominantly white and wealthy communities, it was easy to keep “outsiders” out; private beaches were restricted to members only, and public ones were restricted to town residents or visitors with enough money to pay sky-high parking fees. Coll thought the beaches should be open to all, and his tactic for making that point was simple: He simply loaded North End kids on buses, brought them to a beach, and challenged authorities to do something about it. The kids had fun, and Coll attracted a lot of publicity. But it took a lawsuit filed by a beach jogger in the 1990s to loosen some of the restrictions on beach access, though Coll testified on his behalf.

The full story of Coll’s campaign is told in a new book, “Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline,” by Andrew Karhl, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. In an interview with Smithsonian.com, which has a great overview of the book, Karhl sums up Coll’s outlook this way:

“He understood, on an instinctual level, that the problem of racism was a problem of white people, and white people needed to solve it. So he targeted these very liberal but passive communities that, on the one hand, talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk, and so often actually made the problems worse.”

For more on Coll and his legacy, check out this CT Viewpoints column by Tom Condon, who began his long career as a Hartford Courant reporter, columnist, and editor by covering the beach “invasions.”

“Have things changed since Coll began his journey?” Condon asks. “Somewhat.”

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