Black ExperienceBlack History

Beaches Provide Refuge for Blacks During Jim Crow Era

In the post-1940s Jim Crow era, many recreational water locales, including Ocean City, Maryland, and Virginia Beach, prohibited the inclusion of African American vacationers.

Segregation-era laws in states just south of the Mason-Dixon line legally excluded Blacks from enjoying the fruits of summertime fun in the sun, even in central Maryland near Baltimore.

To counteract such laws, African-American entrepreneurs often created businesses catering solely to a Black clientele. One such example is Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, two sisters who developed beachfront property originally owned by their formerly enslaved parents, Frederick and Mary Wells Carr.

The parents purchased 180 acres of farmland on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula, off the Chesapeake Bay and the Severn River, according to published reports. Although farmers, they also hosted family picnics and church outings, even inviting boarders to participate in summer outings on their water-based property.

By 1926, the family had dubbed the water location Carr’s Beach while naming their nearby oceanside property Sparrow’s Beach. By the late 1940s, Carr’s Beach had become one of the most popular beach spots on the East Coast, with Blacks coming from as far as Ohio and West Virginia.

The location usually hosted family picnics or Sunday School and church outings during the week. But on weekends, some of the premier Black stars from the “Chitlin’ circuit” entertained thousands, with such acts as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, James Brown, Ray Charles and the Raelettes, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Esther Phillips, The Orioles and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hitting the region.

Two area residents recalled the days when their family would travel from West Baltimore for some good ol’ summer fun.

“I was aware that we weren’t welcome at places like Ocean City, still, Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches offered us a place where we could do what we wanted to do without having someone look over us like law enforcement and it was a free environment,” said Mike Lee, 68, a Morgan State University alumni who worked for four decades with the Social Security Administration and was a vocalist with several professional singing groups in the Baltimore region.

Lee’s high school classmate, Robert Ford, 67, also has fond memories of visiting “The Beach” as a youngster.

“Carr’s Beach was a summertime location where everyone wanted to go to experience the beach, but due to the activities below the Mason-Dixon line, we were faced with Jim Crowism and segregation — where we could not go everywhere, including Ocean City,” Ford said.

“To this day, I have never gone to Ocean City,” he said. “It’s just something about not being allowed to go back then, I guess that’s lingered with me even now.

“We had Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach,” Ford said. “Both were Black-owned and we felt comfortable going to both of those places.”

Ford studied broadcast journalism at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. As one of only 15 Blacks of approximately 2,000 students during his freshman year, Ford said he was forced to make major adjustments coming from an urban environment.

At Washington and Lee, he helped found the Student Association of Black Unity. He also earned his bachelor’s degree and ultimately started working at WJZ-TV (Channel 13) in Baltimore.

He also helped form radio stations at Morgan State where he worked as operations director and jazz director, he said.

Darryl Dunn, 73, a Pittsburgh native, was first introduced to Carr’s Beach by a former girlfriend from Baltimore whose father had business partners who often frequented “the Beach.”

“It’s been several years ago, but I recall the first time I heard about Carr’s Beach,” Dunn said. “She invited me down to go see James Brown perform. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“In Pittsburgh, we never had such a waterfront beach presence, so to see thousands of Black people having so much fun in bathing suits, and picnicking and just having a flat-out ball, I knew it was something unique, and now I realize it was part of Black history,” he said.

Dunn is a retiree of Westinghouse Electric Corp., Pittsburgh, a retired DJ/bandleader and a Black music historian.

According to published reports, on the evening of July 21, 1956, an estimated 70,000 people traveled to Carr’s Beach to hear rock ‘n roll pioneer and legendary guitarist Chuck Berry perform, although only 8,000 made it past the gates because the grounds were filled beyond capacity.

By the early 1960s, integration and the civil rights movement had somewhat diminished Jim Crow and also the popularity of Carr’s-Sparrow’s Beaches as a predominately Black-inhabited recreation site.

A 1962 performance in the area by James Brown, said to have drawn 11,000 fans, marked the last of the major crowds drawn to the area, located near Annapolis off the Chesapeake Bay and Severn River.

Susan McNeill’s father, photographer Robert H. McNeill, was a regular visitor to the beaches and took hundreds of photos of revelers. For this article, McNeill, a D.C. native, offered The Informer images of her father’s work at no cost.

“There are times when we charge for use of the images,” she said. “But in the case of newspapers, we want to inform, and keep this historical legacy alive.”

Both Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach are now mostly populated with expansive million-dollar, single-family homes, most of which are white-owned properties. The area where Blacks used to congregate and dominate is now ritzy beachfront property commonly known as Arundel on the Bay.

Hence, the end of an unforgettable era in American Black history.

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