Coastal Perspectives Lecture – Feb 23, 2021

The Struggle to Reclaim Connecticut’s Coastal Commons

Andrew W. Kahrl, Professor of History and African American Studies, University of Virginia


For centuries, America’s beaches were considered public property and treated as a commons. Beginning in the early twentieth century, as beachfront real estate development spread and seasonal and year-round populations in coastal communities swelled, public access to shorelines across the United States dwindled. In coastal Connecticut, wealthy towns along the state’s Gold Coast and second homeowners and private beach associations erected physical barriers and adopted local ordinances designed to keep the general public off the state’s shoreline. By the 1960s, much of the state’s shoreline had become the exclusive domain for a privileged few. This, as Kahrl shows in his book Free the Beaches, both reflected and compounded the state’s racial divisions and social inequities. It also inflicted severe and lasting damage to coastal environments. Kahrl will explain how Connecticut’s shoreline became over-developed and off-limits to the general public in the twentieth century, and tell the story of the enigmatic and controversial social activist Ned Coll, who waged a decade-long campaign to open the state’s shoreline to everyone and call attention to the recreational and environmental deprivations suffered by the state’s African American population.



Andrew Kahrl is professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, where he studies the social, political, and environmental history of land use, real estate, and racial inequality in the 20th century United States.  He is the author of The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (UNC Press), which was awarded the 2013 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award from the Organization of American Historians, and Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline (Yale UP), which received the award for best non-fiction book for 2018 from the Connecticut Center for the Book as well as the Homer D. Babbidge Award from the Association for the Study of Connecticut History. He writes frequently on public shoreline access, recreational inequality, and environmental injustice for national and international publications, and is currently the principal investigator for a study of the history of African American outdoor recreation for the National Park Service.


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