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Carr’s Beach parties on in hearts of area blacks
ANNAPOLIS — Beach vacations often make vivid memories, and those made at Carr’s Beach still linger — the sights and sounds of family get-togethers, church-organized picnics and star-studded performances by blues, R&B; and jazz musicians.
Though it no longer exists as a getaway spot, Carr’s Beach — along with neighboring Sparrow’s Beach — was one of two Chesapeake Bay resorts for blacks in Anne Arundel County during the days of Jim Crow segregation. Owned by sisters Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches were the summertime retreat for black families a half-century ago.
“Well, you also had Sandy Point, but there were separate facilities there, and you couldn’t use the entire beach. There was a black side and a white side,” says D.C. native Navada Smith, 62, who began going to Carr’s for daylong church excursions in the 1950s.
“At Carr‘s, you always felt safe. You never felt like a second-class citizen,” Miss Smith says, her salt-and-pepper dreadlocks encircling her shoulders. “As an African-American, going there was always a part of our social activities.”
On occasion, Carr’s also served as a site for baptisms. But Sunday afternoons brought salvation of a different sort when some of the biggest names in music played before thousands of listeners.
“People could be in the water swimming, but come 3 p.m. when the big show started, they’d all rush out the minute the bands started playing,” says historian and filmmaker Deni Henson.
From its beginning as a public beach in 1929, Carr’s Beach became in its heyday a key stop along the so-called “Chitlin Circuit,” the network of clubs, bars and parks along the East Coast and in the South, where black entertainers could perform.
Among the acts that Carr’s featured: New Orleans boogie-woogie pianist Fats Domino; crooner Arthur Prysock; jazz greats Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton; soul performers Lloyd Price, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, the Coasters and Sam & Dave; and vocal dynamos Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Aretha Franklin.
Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly also performed at Carr‘s.
Bobby Bennett, host of XM Satellite Radio’s “Soul Street,” recalls: “The Washington-Baltimore area was usually the last stop before all these acts headed down South to perform.
“Generally, they’d already played the Howard Theatre in D.C. or the Royal in Baltimore, so they stopped off at other places on the Chitlin’ Circuit like Carr‘s, Sparrow’s Beach or Wilmer’s Park in Brandywine to get a little gas money and pocket change before they continued on,” says Mr. Bennett, author of “The Ultimate Soul Music Trivia Book.” “It wasn’t like it is today, with stars going first-class on planes. Back then, they all traveled by car.”
Aside from beachgoers in the District and Baltimore, Carr’s attracted East Coast day-trippers from Delaware, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, even Ohio.
Locals remember the rivalries between D.C. beachgoers and Annapolis natives during impromptu dance contests (called “jams”), the shoreside pony rides, the annual Miss Carr’s Beauty Pageant and the resort’s large Ferris wheel.
They still talk about the penny and nickel slot machines, and occasionally whisper about the day that a worldly Grammy Award-winning blues singer left town with one of the town’s dashing young men after finishing her set.
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