July 29: A Determined Minister’s Swim for Justice

 

In 1926, a group of eastern Connecticut investors hoping to capitalize on the state’s new car culture, expanding highway system, and Roaring 20’s prosperity, purchased a large spring-fed wetland in Andover Connecticut. They cleared trees, cut roads, and built the 550 foot-long dam that created beautiful Andover Lake. When it was completed in 1928, they ran full page ads in The Hartford Courant offering cottage sites in their private summer colony, “where the restrictions will meet with your approval.”

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1928 ad for Andover Lake cottage sites. Restrictions excluded sales to Jews or blacks.

The restrictions were explicit prohibitions against the sale of lots to Jews or Blacks.

Though the investors’ dream of an exclusive resort was thwarted by the Great Depression and World War II, by the 1950s the lake had enough cottage dwellers to form a property owners association that created its own restriction. No one – not even property owners – could use the lake without first being accepted by a two-thirds majority secret ballot of the members of ALPOA, the Andover Lake Property Owners Association.

William M. Philpot, an African-American minister from New Haven, had purchased a cottage in 1955 from a white Hartford minister, believing the purchase included the right to use the lake. He applied for membership in ALPOA, but was rejected three different times. In 1963, shortly after the Civil Rights march on Washington, Philpot, through James Tsuffis, another property owner, and Hartford attorney and state representative George J. Ritter, sought help from Governor John Dempsey to gain access to the Lake. Dempsey intervened, but ALPOA claimed that as a private group, it could restrict membership at will.

The Andover Lake question became a year-long focus of media attention dividing people across the state. Although half the property owners in Andover voted to admit Philpot, and the local Congregational church strongly supported him, local resistance included burning a seven-foot-high, five-foot-wide cross in James Tsuffis’s yard.  With the unwavering support and counsel of attorney Ritter, Philpot pursued the right to swim in Andover Lake both legally and politically, only to be met with continuous resistance and frustrating delays.

In April of 1964, Philpot, weary of waiting, announced that he and his family intended to swim in the lake that year. The prospective “Wade In” provoked a flurry of media coverage, but the swims proved uneventful.

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Bishop William M. Philpot (1926-2017)

Philpot – seeking to avoid a media frenzy – reported only after the fact that he and his family had swum at the lake on two occasions, and had been greeted by the children of his white neighbors with, “Hello Mr. Philpot.” “I was really having a ball, ” the minister said. “I felt like I belonged to this community.”

Philpot was not unaware of the significance of what he was doing. “If I failed here,” he said, “I did feel that many others will be victimized.” He also added, “We will swim again this year if we feel like it.”

Rev. & Mrs. Philpot (second and third from the right), attorney George Ritter (second from left) and other supporters meet with Governor John Dempsey in 1963, seeking state aid for Philpot’s quest for justice.

The association’s response was to seek a court injunction to prevent Philpot from using the lake. The case dragged on for three years, but ultimately, through Ritter’s relentless pursuit of justice, it was decided in Philpot’s favor. The summer after the decision, the lake association changed its bylaws to allow any lake property owner to join.

In the year 2000,  35 years after he had taken his historic swim,  Philpot (now Bishop Philpot) reflected in a thank you letter to his friend Ritter, on the significance of that time.

“The “Wade-in” we experienced at Andover Lake marked the turning point of my life as well as my ministry,” Philpot wrote,  “for we waded in the water as victims of prejudice and segregation. We came out of the water as victors, with confidence that our cause and crusade were right; and that we would be vindicated in the end. And so it was. For we did overcome.”

Today, a close and diverse community of Andover Lake lovers all enjoy one of the state’s cleanest lakes together, thanks to one brave family’s decision to wade in the water, today in Connecticut history.

This story is taken from Walter W. Woodward’s column “From the State Historian” in the Summer 2019 issue of Connecticut Explored magazine. Subscribe at ctexplored.org. Lead Photo Credit: Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney / wheresmybackpack.com

Further Reading:

Andover Lake, A Lesson in Social Change,” Connecticuthistory.org

David Rhinelander, “Andover Lake: Investor’s CreationHartford Courant