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Looking back at Ocean City’s long history of segregation and discrimination

Archive photo: Eolia P. McMillan, national president of the NAACP and Rev. John Wright start on their journey to Ocean City's Boardwalk to demonstrate against hiring practices by businesses.
Archive photo: Eolia P. McMillan, national president of the NAACP and Rev. John Wright start on their journey to Ocean City's Boardwalk to demonstrate against hiring practices by businesses. (KARL MERTON FERRON/Baltimore Sun)

It was July Fourth weekend 1986 in Ocean City and there was a protest afoot.

As crowds of vacationers filled the city’s boardwalk, so, too, did dozens of marchers, who were demanding better jobs for Black people in the bustling resort town.

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A study from the Worcester County branch of the NAACP had found that just 3% of the Ocean City workers who directly interacted with tourists were Black. Meanwhile, 74% of behind-the-scenes workers, such as janitors and dishwashers, were Black.

The next year, in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, the city’s mayor, Roland Powell, blamed the issue on Black job-seekers.

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“I just don’t think we’re a racist town. A lot of feeling is in the blacks’ own heads. You don’t just change those feelings overnight. Some [blacks] won’t even try to get a job,” Powell said in a 1986 Sun article, which uses outdated terms for the word black.

The president of Ocean City’s Chamber of Commerce chalked the numbers up to an “attitude problem” among Black applicants. A boardwalk store owner told The Sun he just hadn’t “seen a good black.”

More than 30 years later, as another Fourth of July weekend in Ocean City arrives amid a national reckoning over racism, some are revisiting Ocean City’s legacy of segregation and discrimination.

Black writers who penned stories for Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper at times described the beach town as an “all-white playland” surrounded by a “Cotton Curtain” and dominated by the “Eastern Sho’ spirit” of racist exclusion.

A 1927 article in the Afro-American captured the scene. Perhaps the only Black people in the resort town were workers, rarely vacationers, and they were relegated to a tract of beach beyond the northern end of the boardwalk, far from the center of town. New hotel construction had pushed the area for Black beachgoers into more and more undesirable locales, noted the column’s author, Palestine Wells.

“Of course, it would never do to have us bathe anywhere in the neighborhood of any of the hotels. We may expect then, to be pushed constantly up the beach, until we round the point of the peninsula where we’ll have to content ourselves with wading in the shallow waters of the bay,” he wrote.

For a time, before the 1960s, Black people could only roam the beach and boardwalk freely on “Colored Excursion Days” — one day each for Maryland, Virginia and Delaware residents after the summer season had ended — an NAACP leader told The Sun in 1988.

“While we cannot undo Ocean City’s past, we can continue to learn from it,” wrote Jessica Waters, a city spokesperson, in an email. “We are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive community that welcomes all visitors throughout the year. Our beach town offers all visitors an opportunity to come here and relax, unwind and enjoy a fun, safe and welcoming environment.”

There were few refuges on the peninsula for Black beachgoers, one of which was Henry’s Colored Hotel. In 2007, the property was named one of four African American heritage landmarks on the Lower Eastern Shore.

Well-known for hosting jazz artists such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who performed at local establishments but couldn’t patronize them, Henry’s Hotel still stands today.

But many Black Marylanders simply avoided Ocean City altogether. Carr’s Beach near Annapolis was a popular, if segregated, choice, where Black families could swim, picnic, and even enjoy entertainment from the likes of Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Ray Charles.

“It was the closest we could get to the water,” then-79-year-old local Delores McIntyre told The Sun in 2007.

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In 1955, about a year after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, the Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, ruled that segregated beaches were unconstitutional, too. The ruling came after a five-year court battle initiated by the NAACP.

But segregation and discrimination in Ocean City persisted, as did protests against it.

In 1961, Pierre Salinger, President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, called off his planned speech before the Maryland Press Association because the Ocean City hotel hosting him banned Black patrons.

The historical photo shows a crowded beach in Ocean City, Maryland in 1986.
The historical photo shows a crowded beach in Ocean City, Maryland in 1986. (Baltimore Sun staff/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Groups like the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Civic Interest Group fought to integrate Ocean City, and often faced pushback. In June 1962, the Sun reported that a poll of city business owners indicated many were refusing to integrate.

But by 1964, CORE publicly noted the city’s progress. The organization’s report indicated that, since the summer of 1962, CORE members had “made use of all areas of the city without experiencing one racial incident.”

Last month, several hundred demonstrators took to the boardwalk again, this time in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“No justice, no peace, no racist police,” they shouted, according to local paper OC Today.

At one point, bystanders reported a Boardwalk employee brandishing a pair of scissors and yelling at the crowd, but they marched on.

Among them was 83-year-old Ruby Purnell.

“I carried some of these kids [protesting] when they were kids, and brought them to the beach when there were signs that said, ‘Blacks are not allowed,’ in the bathrooms,” she told OC Today.

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