Keisha N. Blain: Please share with us the creation story of your book — those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book.
Andrew W. Kahrl: As I was conducting research for my first book, which explored history of African American beaches and coastal landownership and development in the South, I kept finding newspaper articles and other sources that mentioned a white social activist in Connecticut who was waging a one-man fight to open up the state’s shoreline to the public and calling attention to what he saw as the racist motives behind the ostensibly color-blind beach access restrictions common throughout the northeast. My discovery of this forgotten activist who had fought against racial segregation in New England coincided with the publication of a number of groundbreaking works on Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights in the North, notably Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty, Matthew Countryman’s Up South, and the edited collection Freedom North by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, all of which inspired me to delve more deeply into the history of race and inequality in Connecticut, a place that had previously attracted scant attention from historians.
I was also drawn to this story out of an abiding interest in the relationship between social and environmental inequality, in particular, the interests behind and impact of exclusionary land use policies on people and the environment. In Connecticut, as I soon discovered, exclusionary beach access policies (which had, by the 1960s, rendered almost all of the state’s shoreline off-limits to the general public) complemented and reinforced racial and class segregation in housing markets, schools, and public life, and inflicted significant and lasting damage to the shoreline itself. In the course of studying Ned Coll, I also began to look more closely at the open beaches movement of the 1960s and 70s. During these decades, activists across the country were fighting to tear down the numerous barriers wealthy municipalities and private homeowners had erected and restore the public’s ancient right to the sea. However, with the exception of Ned Coll, few of these activists were calling attention to the racially discriminatory motives and racially disparate impact of beach access restrictions, much less linking the fight against privatization of public space to the broader struggle for a more inclusive and integrated society.