Mine Not Yours: Activist Ned Coll And His Fight To Desegregate Connecticut's Beaches

Apr 16, 2018

The beach! For some, the word evokes images of bright summer days along sandy shores, kids and families splashing in blue waters. You might not picture it as the site for a raucous protest though. But back in the late 1960s and ‘70s, Connecticut’s shoreline became ground zero for a movement against private ownership of beaches. A man named Ned Coll made it his mission to open them up to minorities and poor people from the cities.

His tactics were anything but subtle. Coll’s campaign to challenge the tradition of private beaches is the subject of a new book called, “Free The Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.” The author is Andrew Kahrl, associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, and he recently spoke with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about the book.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Good morning, Professor Kahrl.

Good morning.

Now why is it that there were there so many private beaches in Connecticut to begin with?

That’s a fascinating part of the story that I discovered, how the shoreline developed. As early as the late 19th century, you began to see the formation of these private beach associations, which were kind of the forerunner to the modern gated community in that they privatized public space. They were formed by groups of homeowners, and these became very popular. They proliferated in the 1920s and in the post-war era.

By the time you get to the 1960s, there’s 54 beach associations along the state shoreline, in addition to 184 private clubs and residential non-stock corporations. And then in addition to that, you had public beaches that were sort of public in name only, in that they often times had severe restrictions as to who could access them.

And how did Ned Coll become a leader in this fight? He seems to be such a polarizing character, as you describe him in your book. Some people admired him for what he was doing and others thought, as you mention, a bit of nut.       

Yeah. That’s one of the real ironies of this story, because he thought that beaches could be places to bring people together. His organization that he founded in 1964, Revitalization Crops, was very much focused on trying to help create a truly integrated society. And he thought that places of outdoor recreation could be the perfect opportunities to get black and white children together, to get black and white parents in dialogue. 

He sort of began this rather innocently, when he rented a school bus, brought a bunch of children from Hartford’s North End, which was the city’s predominately black neighborhood, with the idea of going down to the shore and providing them with a day at the beach.   

When he got there, he discovered that there were very few places they could actually access, and the places they attempted to go to, they were not received very kindly. Slowly but very surely, he went from someone who was trying to bring people together and asking for access to one who was demanding it.       

That leads me to the question about confrontation. He eventually opted to bring attention to the campaign using that tactic, organizing visits to the beach. I guess it was the summer of ‘71 when he brought basically a series of surprise visits to private beaches with school buses filled with kids and parents. Why did he turn to confrontation and did that work?

Well, he certainly saw it as a battle. He really came to see the wealthy families along the shoreline as people who really stood in the way of social progress and he over time really made it personal in ways that I think is worth questioning the effectiveness because it did become an issue of Ned Coll fighting against these towns. That sometimes worked against efforts to actually create better understanding and create solutions to these problems.

In response to the second question, did it work? It’s a sort of mixed legacy in the sense that it ultimately brought more attention to this issue. Many people who had not previously been fighting for this had understood what Ned was championing and saw that they had a stake in this as well. This was not simply African-American youth in Hartford who were being denied access, but it was much of the state’s population who weren’t fortunate enough to live or own a cottage along the state’s shoreline.  

What was the legacy of Ned Coll’s campaign? Did it really free the beaches?    

The legacy is really borne out in the case from 2001 decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court, when a law student, Brenden Leydon, now a practicing attorney in Connecticut, sued the Town of Greenwich over its beach access ordinance, which limited access to residents only, and won at the Supreme Court level and at that point many of the restrictions that towns had practiced ended. 

But, in a practical sense, as I show at the end of the book, much of the state’s shoreline remains as inaccessible as ever. You have new more subtle tactics that many local communities use, the restriction on parking spaces, beach passes that are sometimes hard to purchase if you’re not a resident. And I think in many respects that reflects and reinforces larger inequalities in society today.

Andrew Kahrl is the author of “Free The Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.” Professor Kahrl, thank you very much.

Thank you.