Racism Kept Connecticut’s Beaches White Up Through the 1970s
Lebert F. Lester II still remembers his first trip to the beach. It was the late 1970s, and he was 8 or 9 years old, the eighth in a family of 11 children from a poor and mostly African-American neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. The shore of Long Island Sound lay less than 40 miles away, but until that weekend Lester had only ever seen the ocean in books and on television.
“I was really excited,” Lester says, recalling how he and other kids from the neighborhood spilled out of their bus and rushed down to the water. They had been equipped with sand pails and shovels, goggles and life jackets—all donated by an anti-poverty organization that had organized the trip. Lester set to work building a sand castle, and he was soon joined by a young white girl who wanted to help.
“I’m talking to her about how we’re going to do it, we’re working together, and I’m not sure how long it was, but I look up and I see a man—I guess it was her daddy—and he snatches her away,” remembers Lester, recently reached by phone at his Hartford barbershop. Reasoning that it was simply time for the girl to go home, he kept on building. Then the girl came back. “She says I’m nice, why don’t I just go in the water and wash it off? I was so confused—I only figured out later she meant my complexion.”
It was his first experience with racism, but Lester still remembers that beach trip, and others that followed, as highlights of his childhood. And although they weren’t aware of their roles at the time, Lester and his friends were also part of a decade-long struggle for beach access—a campaign that aimed to lift what many called Connecticut’s “sand curtain.”
Launched by a white, self-avowed class warrior named Ned Coll in 1971, the effort unmasked the insidious nature of bigotry, especially in the supposedly tolerant Northeast, as well as the class and racial tensions that lurk beneath the all-American ideal of seaside summer vacations. It’s a story that still resonates today, argues University of Virginia historian Andrew Karhl in a new book, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.