Time was running out to save the last vestige of a rollicking African American getaway on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
The pair of neighboring Jim Crow era resorts once buzzed along the waterfront of the Annapolis Neck peninsula. At their height during the 1950s and ‘60s, Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches attracted crowds by the thousands who came to relax and enjoy some of the top Black entertainers of the day, from Little Richard to Aretha Franklin.
But after the venues closed in the 1970s, their once-expansive acreage began to be swallowed by suburban development: a gated subdivision, a marina, a senior-living community and the expansion of a wastewater treatment plant.
Now, the leaders of a broad coalition of public and private groups say they have struck a deal to save the last piece of the original resort. Their plan is to transform the 5-acre, shore-hugging property into a city park that celebrates the site’s heritage.
“We are proud to partner with the city of Annapolis to reclaim part of this beautiful waterfront area that is of such great historic and cultural significance,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said, announcing the pending $6.4 million transaction March 14. “As a major music venue and beloved gathering place for generations of Black Marylanders, Carr’s Beach left an incredible legacy that we will now be able to preserve for posterity.”
Vince Leggett, founder and president of the preservation group Blacks of the Chesapeake, began trying to purchase the property 15 years ago. But he said it quickly became apparent that he would need help.
“It was like putting together a million-piece jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “No one entity was strong enough to do it on its own.”
The project ended up getting funding from a patchwork of city, county and federal sources. An earmark obtained by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in the recently approved 2022 federal funding bill will provide $2 million for designing and planning the park. Meanwhile, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, whose district includes Annapolis, is pushing legislation to designate the property as a state park to be operated jointly with the city.
The Conservation Fund plans to purchase it from its owner, developer Theo Rodgers. Afterward, the group plans to sell the land to the city, officials said.
In addition to its cultural importance, the parcel’s salvation would advance environmental goals, said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, another partner. The mostly wooded, undeveloped parcel can absorb pounding surge during strong storms, protecting neighboring built-up areas from erosion. Dunn added that its preservation ensures that the landscape will continue to be a home for wildlife.
“To me, this is a symbol that land conservation is important to everyone, and everyone benefits from it,” Dunn said.
The park would also offer public water access, but its final look and feel remain to be determined. Supporters hope it will tell the story of one of the most popular summer havens in the mid-Atlantic that catered to African Americans when others shut them out.
“It’s more than a pin or a dot on the map,” Leggett said. “It was an authentic space owned by African Americans.”
That story began with Frederick Carr, a formerly enslaved man who purchased 180 acres of farmland on the Bay at the mouth of the Severn River. In the early years, in addition to continuing to farm the land, he and his wife, Mary Wells Carr, hosted picnics and outings.
In 1926, they founded Carr’s Beach as a family-oriented Black retreat. Five years later, one of the Carr’s daughters, Florence Carr Sparrow, started her own attraction, which she called Sparrow’s Beach, on adjoining land she had inherited. Her older sister, Elizabeth Carr Smith, took over management of Carr’s Beach.
Over time, patrons simply called the area “The Beach.” New amenities popped up, including a midway lined with slot machines and a pavilion that hosted dances and some of the most popular acts on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit — the string of venues in segregated parts of the country that catered to Black performers and audiences.
The list of entertainers who performed at the beaches presents a who’s who of African American stars: Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Coasters, the Temptations and more.
After segregation formally ended, the resorts struggled to draw crowds the way they once did and closed. The preservation effort aims to save the last slice of the beach complex, now known as Elktonia Beach.
Leggett, 68, has vivid memories of visits to the beaches as a child in the 1950s and ‘60s. His father worked at a canning plant in Baltimore with separate unions for Black and White workers. Each year, the unions would organize separate weekend-long outings for their members. Leggett’s father told him that in the lunchroom afterward, the White workers always seemed envious of the time that their Black counterparts had had at Sparrow’s and Carr’s.
“Everybody has a Carr’s Beach story,” Leggett said, “and my tagline is, ‘Come out and tell me yours.’”
This article was oringally published on the Bay Journal.