Racism is deeply ingrained in the history of CT's beaches. An author explains why
As a heat wave sweeps across the nation, beaches can provide residents with some relief. However, accessing those beaches continues to be a challenge for historically marginalized communities.
It’s something advocates call the “nature gap,” or the unequal access to shared spaces and resources in nature based on race or socioeconomic class.
“As a result, you have a shoreline that has been historically segregated in all but name,” said Andrew Kahrl, author and professor of history and African American studies at University of Virginia.
Kahrl is the author of Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline. He recently spoke on Connecticut Public Radio’s “The Wheelhouse.”
All but seven of Connecticut's 253 miles of coastline and 72 miles of beach were either in private hands or limited to town residents throughout the 1960s, Kahrl said.
Some town beach associations had racist provisions in their rules
Kahrl pointed to the proliferation of private beach associations and restrictive housing practices as the primary ways public spaces became effectively segregated in Connecticut.
“Many of these beach associations were founded quite explicitly [on racism] and placed in their deeds restrictions on the sale of lots to members of the Caucasian race,” Kahrl said. “You had the growth of public beaches that were being created by towns, but [they] often placed restrictions on access to residents of those towns only.”
The exclusionary housing practices of these towns in the early to mid-20th century often resulted in very few, “and in many cases, zero,” Black residents, Kahrl said. Growing resistance by those communities to the creation of state parks and beaches also contributed to the segregation and privatization of public spaces.
In the 1930s, many were opposed to the creation of Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, one of the few state beaches available to the general public.
“It brought us to a point in the 1950s and 60s where you had large African American populations in cities like New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford,” Kahrl said. “And you had a state shoreline that was effectively off limits to the vast majority of the state’s African American and Puerto Rican population.”
In 1971, Hartford activist Ned Coll shattered the wall of passive indifference between Connecticut’s extremely white suburbs and effectively redlined, segregated Black and Latino cities by busing city children to so-called “private” beaches.
Equal access to beaches in CT remains a problem
Some coastal residents still say the public shouldn’t be able to access their town’s beaches. That’s despite a 2001 state Supreme Court decision affirming the public’s right to enter all beaches across the state.
A highly publicized case in 2006 saw three Black residents of Greenwich, Sheila Foster, Migdalia Bonilla and Claudette Rothman, threatened with arrest for trying to access the beach without passes. Town officials at the time denied racial discrimination.
But lines in the sand have continued to deepen. In 2018, civil rights advocates said the town of Westport ramped up methods of barring nonresidents from entering their beaches. Officials increased the cost of a seasonal pass for nonresidents to $775 and decreased the number of day passes to be sold.
In 2020, advocates said several towns used the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to increase restrictions and enact overall bans on nonresidents at their beaches.
Kahrl explained that the culture of exclusion that’s permeated through coastal communities is what continues to prevent general beach access today.
“Coupled with that [exclusionary zoning], is the power and influence that beachfront homeowners continue to wield — who by and large are pretty wealthy and can exert a greater degree of political influence than, say, those who are being excluded from the state shoreline,” Kahrl said.