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.
Those older than 60 can recall the ride from the District along Maryland Route 214 East, where the urban asphalt morphed seamlessly into the dusty roads leading to the Annapolis coastline. Armed with picnic baskets bearing treats wrapped in wax paper, they made the 33-mile trip by car, bus, train — or even hay wagon.
“The hayride would pick you up from a certain spot in D.C. and we’d head out on that one-lane highway. I just remember it being so far away,” says Sam Clyburn, 69, who recalls Sunday excursions to Carr’s as a teenager to see performers such as the Clovers, the Coasters, the Orioles and blues great “Big” Joe Turner.
Admission to the beach was just 10 cents per person, Mrs. Smith says.
“I can remember people hiding in the trunk and squatting on the floor of the back seat to avoid paying,” says Yvonne Borders, 61, who lives in Maryland but grew up in Southeast.
Consumed by redevelopment, Carr’s began fading in the late 1960s. A sewage treatment plant and gated waterfront community of luxury condominiums now stand on the site.
The final concert came in 1974, when Baltimore-born rocker Frank Zappa took the stage. An estimated 8,000 fans had to be turned away from the standing-room-only event.
But new interest in Carr’s Beach is increasing.
Miss Henson’s 90-minute documentary about the resort, “Sands of Time,” will open next year during Annapolis Charter 300, a birthday salute to Maryland’s capital city.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” Miss Henson says. “You have children right here in Annapolis who don’t know this area’s history and what these remarkable women did in segregated America.”
In May, Annapolis officials conducted a ceremony to change the name of Edgewood Road to Carr’s Beach Road.
“We’d like to preserve it as part of the Annapolis City Parks system,” Mr. Shropshire says.
Preserving Carr’s history is necessary because “we’re trying to dispel the myth that people of color don’t care about the environment or economics,” says historian and author Vincent O. Leggett, who specializes in black maritime history and culture.
“The Carr’s story is such a phenomenal story because it pulls together so many aspects of African-American life along the Bay,” says Mr. Leggett, director of special projects and coordinator of the Patapsco-Back River Tributary Team for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “The man who wins the war writes the history.”
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