Remembering Ned Coll … and Connecticut’s shameful segregation

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Ned Coll arguing with John Wardlaw, then head of the Hartford Housing Authority.

If you were in Connecticut in the late 1960s and the 1970s, you might remember Ned Coll.

He was the Hartford activist who, among other things, brought African-American youngsters from the squalid housing projects in the North End of Hartford to private beaches along the shore, which Coll believed should be open to the public.

It was a wild time in the staid shoreline communities as Coll and his harmless band of kids and volunteers “invaded” the private or town-residents-only enclaves. Coll’s raucous and risky adventures are recounted in a new book, “Free the Beaches, The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline” (Yale Press)  by University of Virginia history professor Andrew W. Kahrl.

It is an important book. Kahrl asks a question that was rarely asked at the time Coll was hitting the beaches, probably because we all knew the answer: Why did someone have to bring poor minority kids from Hartford down to challenge the exclusivity of the shoreline? The answer is the shameful history that turned Connecticut into one of “one of the most racially and economically segregated states in the nation by the early 1970s.”

African-Americans began moving north in numbers in the years around World War I, the so-called Great Migration. Black neighborhoods formed in the state’s large cities, including the North End of Hartford (though many whites remained in the neighborhood until the 1960s).

This pattern wasn’t unusual; Irish, German, Polish, Italian and French-Canadian newcomers had done the same thing.  The difference was they could move to the suburbs, if and when they wanted to. For blacks, and for a time Jews, it wasn’t so easy

Federal housing policies, such as the redlining of urban neighborhoods for home loans, as well real estate industry practices (steering), highways that walled off urban neighborhoods (note how surgically I-84 separates downtown Hartford from the North End) and exclusionary zoning practices in the suburbs worked to keep blacks in the cities,

Many would be forced into cheaply built, rat-infested public housing projects in the least desirable areas of Hartford. With no jobs, some turned to the narcotics trade. These became ghetto-like conditions.

What really bothered Ned Coll was that precious few, notably among the white liberals in the suburbs,  seemed to care.

Coll was a compelling story, well told by Kahrl. A recent college graduate working in a downtown insurance company, he left the job after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963 and formed a social service/anti-poverty agency called The Revitalization Corps in the slain President’s honor.

Started on a shoestring, the Corps became a hands-on problem-solver. If people needed clothing, food, fuel or a job, Corps volunteers would try to find them one. If a child needed tutoring a volunteer would step up.

The model — flexible, no federal money or bureaucracy — seemed to catch the spirit of the ‘60s and caught on. Chapters opened in big cities and college campuses across the county, thanks in no small part to Coll’s Swiftian wit and keen sense of public relations.

By the late ‘60s Coll really had it going. He was profiled in national magazines, hanging with the Kennedys, getting constant attention. The U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) named him one of their 10 Outstanding Young Men in 1970, a class that included the reigning King of Rock ’N’ Roll, Elvis Presley.

But what Coll really wanted to do was shake up the suburbs and get them involved in the cities, to attack “the passive prejudices and corrosive indifference toward the black urban poor among New England’s white middle class.”

And what better place to do it than the wealthy towns with their private beaches along the Connecticut shore.  For decades in the early to mid-20th century, wealthy individuals and sharp developers bought up nearly all of the Connecticut shoreline for summer homes or state-chartered colonies of cottages. By the late 1960s, Kahrl writes, all but seven of the state’s 253 miles of coastline and 72 miles of beach were either in private hands or limited to town residents.

Having acquired the coastal lands, owners proceeded block off their (sometimes tiny) beaches with groins, fences and walls.

This, Kahrl accurately observed, was “not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive.” He writes: “beach fortifications and obstructions exacerbated the damage to the ecology  of the coast’s beaches and tidal marshes by limiting their capacity to naturally migrate.”

The walls and fences to keep people out were catnip to Coll. For several years starting in 1971 Coll gathered busloads of North End kids and drove them to beaches from Old Lyme to Madison to Greenwich, challenging officials to keep them from the cooling waves. Coll walked the whole shoreline to garner publicity for his efforts. He landed on a couple of beaches in a rubber raft — the land below the high tide line is open to the public.

I joined The Hartford Courant in 1971 and was assigned to shoreline towns, so saw much of this up close. (I am quoted in the book.)  I was mildly amused to see some defensive — to put it mildly — owners and officials get their britches in a twist for an afternoon. But Coll was really living on the edge. He had kids going, sometimes by themselves, to cottage doors to ask if they could stay for the weekend. Had one child been lost, assaulted or otherwise been badly treated, Coll’s new ministry would have been in Somers.

But he pulled it off.

Courtesy of Yale University Press

Hartford youth at a private beach on Connecticut’s coast.

Ironically, the person who actually got town beaches opened to the public was a sharp Rutgers law student named Brenden Leydon, who was stopped from jogging on the Greenwich town beach, sued in 1995, and won. He called Coll as a witness.

Coll keep some of this Corps programs going into the early 1980s, but times had changed and so had Coll. He always had an ego and a vindictive side, but now he became “even more stubborn and defiant and — to those closest to him — intolerable.”  His public appearances became “less frequent and increasingly bizarre and discomforting.”  His razor-sharp wit “was replaced with anger and incoherence.”

He burned through key staff people. The chapters around the country quietly closed. Coll, who had once pushed himself into the national spotlight, had now become irrelevant, one many considered a crank. Many believe his change in behavior is attributable to the fact that he has epilepsy and often did not properly medicate himself.

Coll didn’t entirely go away. He would sometimes be seen at demonstrations or on a downtown street corner with a handmade sign. A decade ago he attempted  a comeback of sorts. A devout Catholic, he rebranding the Revitalization Corps as “God Activism,” an effort to introduce God into public life. Current events suggest it hasn’t caught on, but one certainly wishes him well.

Have things changed since Coll began his journey? Somewhat. The failing housing projects are gone, replaced by nicer dwellings, especially the old Dutch Point project. Thousands of city kids have benefitted from the schools created by the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit.

Middle class black families who want to move to the suburbs aren’t all being steered to Bloomfield. There is more affordable housing in the suburbs, as towns realized they priced out their own teachers, police officers, etc., though more is needed.

But as the reaction to Hartford’s possible bankruptcy and state bailout suggests, there is considerable antipathy to the capital city and its people. Look, people, if you had a good education which led to a good job, and had the chance to buy a house in whatever town you wanted, a little empathy for those who were denied these opportunities is in order.

Though he has mostly faded from public view, Coll should be remembered for the following:

  • In its time he and his organization did a lot of good, and is so remember by North End residents of a certain age.
  • He was right about the beaches. They are a public resource. They should be, as in several states, open to the public up to the vegetation line, not the high water mark, with reasonable public access. And, the reckless development must be ameliorated over time, and beaches and marshes restored where possible. Unfortunately, towns still control access to their “open” beaches via parking rules and beach fees.
  • He was right about white apathy, and his bold notion of introducing  black children to suburban beach dwellers face to face, while risky, was a way to break down the wall of indifference. As in more formally organized programs such as the Fresh Air Fund, sometimes while and black families got to know one another and became friends.

Would that there were a way to do it on a broader scale.

What do you think?

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