Beach Memories: A Glimpse into Chesapeake Past

Ocean City. Sandy Point. North Beach. When the warm summer sun starts to shine on Maryland once again, these are the sandy shores to which Chesapeake Bay beachgoers will flock. From picnic spots to boardwalks and nightlife, we have our pick of beach experiences—all right here in our state. These sandy attractions carry a “come one, come all” atmosphere where families set up their shade tents next to Beach Week teenagers’ towels and retired couples’ folding lounge chairs.

But Maryland beaches weren’t always “come one, come all.” In the days of segregation, African Americans weren’t allowed at most Chesapeake Bay beaches, so property owners opened exclusively black, private beaches. Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches don’t have the name recognition today that Sandy Point and North Beach do, but while they were in operation, from 1926 to 1973, the two Anne Arundel County resorts were major East Coast destinations.

    Owned by two sisters, Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, the side-by-side beaches offered black families a mid-Atlantic getaway and some of the best live entertainment of the mid-20th century. The eye-popping list of artists who performed in Annapolis includes Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and James Brown.

Today, there’s not much geographical evidence these iconic beaches ever existed; their beachfront is now the site of a condo complex. In fact, many Gen-X, Millennial and post-Millennial natives of Anne Arundel County don’t know the history of the early-to-mid-century beach resort boom, nor can they imagine beaches in our own communities’ flat-out denying access to African Americans.

These local truths are exactly why it’s important to observe Black History Month on the local level. Sure, our schools’ history curriculum has long taught the significance of Jim Crow laws, the shift caused by the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the contributions of well-known African Americans with strong Maryland ties like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

To bring black history truly close to home, however, we must rely on local museums, historians, scholars and activists. As the calendar turns to February and Black History Month is now underway, CBM Bay Weekly will spotlight unique opportunities happening right in our communities each week this month. 

Cooking on the Chesapeake is an original event centered around Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches and the culinary traditions of their time. Not just a lecture, the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation’s event will also feature “table discussions” where folks can share recipes and traditions, and then taste the type of dishes served at the famed Carr sisters’ beaches.

In the coming weeks we’ll also tell you about the Black Vote Mural Project, an art installation by regional artists inspired by the theme African Americans and the Vote. And we’ll look at Maryland’s new effort to map the Underground Railroad as it ran through our state.

Today, our local beaches are full of diversity. On hot summer days, our beaches host vibrant crowds from every part of the community, with different voices and languages heard against the lapping of the Bay on the shore.

    Today, it’s more important than ever to keep the context of the past alive on the Chesapeake Bay.