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.”

More old newspapers to go online

Congratulations to the Connecticut State Library for winning a third grant for its Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project. This allows the Library to digitize another 100,000 pages from the microfilm it holds from old Connecticut newspapers. Those pages will be added to the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper database.

The latest selections, scheduled to be online by the fall of 2019, include some Hartford-based publications; they’re listed below according to category, with their years of publication. The complete list is here.

African American:

  • Hartford-Springfield Chronicle, 1940
  • Hartford Chronicle, 1946-1947
  • Connecticut Chronicle (Hartford, Conn.), 1948
  • New England Bulletin (Hartford, Conn.), 1949

Labor:

  • The Examiner (Hartford, Conn.), 1881-1888
  • The Weekly Examiner (Hartford, Conn.), 1890-1901
  • Hartford Labor, 1894
  • The Labor Standard (Hartford, Conn.), 1910-1922
  • The Connecticut Craftsman (Hartford, Conn.), 1932

Of cookbooks, redlining, and heels

Grating the Nutmeg,” the podcast co-produced by State Historian Walt Woodward and “Connecticut Explored” magazine, continues to deliver the goods, proving itself as essential listening for anyone interested in Hartford history and Connecticut history in general.

Cover of "United Tastes"Hartford’s one-time prominence as a publishing center comes up in this episode, in which Woodward and co-host Brenda Miller of the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library interview Keith Staveley and Kathleen Fitzgerald about their book, “United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.” The title refers to “American Cookery,” first published in Hartford in 1796 and commonly regarded as the first cookbook published in the United States. The identity of the author remains a mystery; the name on the title page–Amelia Simmons–turns up in no other records from the period. There’s no mystery, however, about the publisher. The partnership of George Goodwin and Barzillai Hudson were already publishing the Connecticut Courant (today’s Hartford Courant) and couldn’t keep up with the demand for another title of theirs, Noah Webster’s spelling and grammar book, widely known as the “Blue-Backed Speller.” As Woodward notes in the podcast, the cookbook appeared to fit into Hudson & Goodwin’s effort in those years, just after the Revolution, to promote “Americanism.”

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Another episodeCover of "On the Line" deals with the Hartford region’s history of housing discrimination through redlining, steering, exclusionary zoning, and property covenants. The guest is Trinity College’s Dr. Jack Dougherty, whose online book, “On The Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs,” uses West Hartford as a case study.

Though titled “The Challenge of Fair Housing in Connecticut’s Suburbs,” the podcast episode deals in several respects with Hartford. For instance, when the federal government sought to revive the home mortgage market as an antidote to the Great Depression in the 1930s, it partnered with lenders to create maps that would highlight some neighborhoods as better-than-expected risks for mortgages. But the maps also showed the poorer risks–based not just on the prospects of repayment, but on such social criteria as the percentage of foreign-born or African-American families. As a result, these so-called poor-risk neighborhoods (color-coded as red on the maps, hence “redlining”) became still less attractive to lenders, which in turn made them poorer. Dougherty notes that in Hartford’s case, the neighborhoods red-lined in the ’30s tended to lie along the Connecticut River, then known as the East Side.

Then there’s the discriminatory obstacles that Jewish families in the city’s North End faced in trying to move to West Hartford and other suburbs following World War II — a story that would be all too familiar to other racial and ethnic groups that initially settled in Hartford.

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Cover of "Wicked Hartford"Still another Grating episode spotlights Steve Thornton’s new book, “Wicked Hartford.”  Rather than the vice and tabloid scandal implied by the title, Thornton’s work focuses on the struggles of Hartford’s 99 percent. “I wanted to talk about the unsung heroines and the overrated heels,” Thornton tells CT Explored Assistant Publisher Mary Donohue in the podcast. “I wanted to talk about people who were enslaved and people who were entitled. I wanted to make that contrast, because history is usually written for and by the ‘great’ white men of our past.” Among Thornton’s heels is Hartford’s most revered industrialist, gun maker Samuel Colt, who is called out for selling weapons to the South as well as the North in the lead-up to the Civil War — something widely known at the time but largely ignored now. “It’s really amazing that we’re willing to overlook that,” Thornton says.

The book also brings to light, among other things, the city’s Seyms Street jail, which became so notorious for its deplorable conditions that it drew national attention; the plight of “newsies” and other child laborers; and the struggles city residents faced during the Great Depression.

Props for the Polish National Home

For a while, it looked as though the Polish National Home on Charter Oak Avenue had settled into hidden-gem status. Architecture buffs loved its circa-1930 Art Deco facade and beautiful ballroom; lovers of pierogies and beer always had a home in the unpretentious dining room. But even Hartford boosters would forget to list the Home as one of the city’s attractions.

Fortunately, that appears to be changing. The Hartford Courant has taken notice of a new generation of leaders at the Home. One of them, board president Rob Kwasnicki, told the newspaper that the Home aims to boost membership by not only remaining loyal to Polish heritage and culture but also becoming an engine of progress for the Charter Oak neighborhood and the city as a whole. Steps so far have included sprucing up the rooms new members are most likely to use, like the dining room, and loading up the calendar with community events.

“We have an opportunity for the Polish National Home to be be what it has always been: an anchor in the community,” Kwasnicki said. “We can be a focal point, a gathering place, a beacon or central point of informational disbursement.”

 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day

The latest issue of Connecticut Magazine features “Our Irish Soul: How the Irish Shaped Connecticut, and Vice Versa,” an article by Michael Lee-Murphy. Informative and well-written, it outlines the history of Irish immigrants in our state, starting from their arrival in the early 1600s as indentured servants. Hartford gets a few mentions, including the 1902 visit to the city by James Connolly, the revolutionary who went on to lead the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin, which cost him his life. (Wounded and captured in the fighting, he was executed by the British while tied to a chair.) There’s also Catherine Flanagan, the Hartford-born daughter of Irish immigrants. A leader in the fight securing women’s right to vote, she spent 30 days in jail for a Washington, D.C. protest in 1917. In addition, according to Lee-Murphy, Flanagan campaigned across the U.S. for American recognition of the Irish Republic.