As a teenager in the 1960s, George Trotter would pile into his uncle’s Studebaker with his siblings and other kids from the Old Fourth Ward in Annapolis and head down to Carr’s Beach.
Trotter’s family would bring blankets and food for the daylong outing at the Black-owned summer resort south of Annapolis. Both Carr’s Beach, and the more laid-back Sparrow’s Beach, were regular destinations for Black families like Trotter’s who were forbidden to visit whites-only beaches up and down the East Coast during segregation.
For decades, the beaches served as a getaway where people of color from Maryland and the surrounding areas could unwind, soak up the sun and witness firsthand some of the biggest musical acts in America. By late afternoon, beachgoers would leave their picnics and crowd into the cavernous Carr’s Beach pavilion to hear superstar artists James Brown, Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye perform.
An Annapolis outfit, The Van Dykes Band, appeared regularly as opening acts or backup bands to the R&B and Motown legends like the Coasters, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Bo Diddley, Solomon Burke, Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett.
“What astonished me at a young age was ... these tremendous stars come to a small town like Annapolis,” said Trotter, a retired Anne Arundel County schoolteacher and administrator. “It was sort of like a miniature Woodstock for the Black community.”
In those crowds was Dorothy Rutherford, who visited Carr’s and Sparrow’s beach regularly in the 1940s and 50s with her husband. Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said the beach was a respite from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., for his parents.
Rutherford, who turns 65 on April 1, was too young to go to the beach himself, he said, but remembered hearing about the retreat as an important cultural touchstone for Black residents during a time when other places were off-limits.
“It was a place you could go in the summer and get a little bit of a breeze off the bay and get some beach time,” he said. “It was a nice getaway but also a concert venue as well. It was important to people in the area from a cultural standpoint.”
After both beaches closed by the 1970s, the area was developed into residential homes until a 5-acre waterfront plot remained. This month, the state of Maryland announced it was putting up nearly $5 million to purchase the property and turn it into a public park.
The impact of ‘Little Willie’ Adams
The story of how Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beach came to prominence can’t be told without Little Willie Adams.
For the first quarter of the 20th century, the 180-acre property on the Chesapeake Bay was owned by Frederick Carr, a freedman who farmed the land with his wife and hosted picnics at Carr’s Beach starting in 1926; Sparrow’s Beach came along in 1931. Carr’s two daughters operated the beaches in tandem.
Around the same time, William “Little Willie” Adams was a businessman from Baltimore who built a financial empire on the profits from his illegal numbers-running operations, according to “They Call Me Little Willie,” a biography of Adams by Mark R. Cheshire. In the 1940s, Adams bought up pieces of the Carr’s properties and built a sprawling pavilion and stage to host musical performances. Elsewhere on the land, he built amusement rides, including a Ferris wheel, and installed slot machines.
In no time, “The Beaches” as they were called, became the jewel of Black entertainment on the East Coast.
To handle security at the beaches, Adams hired George Phelps Jr., who organized a group of Black men to serve as deputized sheriffs to patrol the concerts.
As a young man, Phelps was enamored with the beach. His sister, Virginia Phelps Hayes, worked there in the 1930s and waited tables for one of the Carr sisters, Elizabeth Carr Smith. When he came to work there, Phelps gained a reputation that matched his big frame. He would swing a billy club at anyone who stepped out of line, and warned “I hope you left your troubles behind. Because if you haven’t, we will beat you so low to the ground you will need a stepladder to see up over the edge of a dime,” said Phelps’ niece, Janice Hayes-Williams, an Annapolis historian.
Phelps would eventually become the first Black man hired as a law enforcement officer at the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
As thousands of Black residents flocked to his beach, Willie Adams had a profound impact in the Baltimore region, infusing the money he earned from the beaches back into Black businesses.
“The thing about Carr’s and Sparrows is everybody got paid and in turn, the money went back into our community,” Hayes-Williams said.
Less than 5 miles away from the beach, an Annapolis AM radio station, WANN, would broadcast the sounds of Carr’s Beach to the surrounding region. The legendary disc jockey Hoppy Adams joined the station in 1953 and would emcee the Sunday concerts from the pavilion.
Too young to go to the beach in person, Dr. Larry Blum, whose father, Morris Blum, owned WANN from 1947 to 1997, would sit in the station house on Bay Ridge Avenue as a teenager and listen to Adams introduce acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Muddy Waters and Lloyd Price.
“During most of the week, African Americans were invisible,” Blum said, but “on Sunday, Cinderella shows up to the ball.”
“It was a place where people of color could be themselves,” he added. “There was no one to impress or safeguard yourself from.”
Either because of disinterest, racism, or a combination of the two, word of the booming Black enclave off Bembe Beach Road rarely made it into the pages of The Capital, except when the world of sports overlapped with the beach, namely visits by boxing champion Joe Louis, or to recount a crime that occurred on its grounds.
But the radio was where listeners could go to hear the sounds of Black performers at Carr’s Beach.
Blum has sought to keep pieces of the radio and its rich history alive by donating records, photos and other mementos to the Smithsonian Institution. The donated materials also included a pith helmet Hoppy Adams would wear during his Carr’s Beach appearances as Daddy Cool, Beachy Popsie and other airtime characters he portrayed until 1966 when the beach remotes ended.
By the 1970s, the country had begun to tear down the racist segregationist practices of the past and Black families started venturing to previously off-limits places like Sandy Point and Ocean City. Musical acts still came through Carr’s Beach but it was not like it once was. Frank Zappa headlined the last concert at the pavilion in 1974.
The public park
In the mid-1970s, Theo Rodgers entered the picture.
A longtime friend and business partner to Willie and Victorine Adams, Rodgers managed the couple’s affairs, including their real estate holdings. Over the years, Rodgers oversaw sales of portions of the property for residential development. But Rodgers promised he would hold on to a 5-acre plot so Willie and Victorine could still visit the waterfront as they got older, he said.
Victorine Q. Adams was the first Black woman to serve on the Baltimore City Council and a powerful political figure in the city until her death in 2006. Willie Adams died in 2011 at age 97.
The Morning Sun
By then, Rodgers had begun working to sell the land for future development. The money from the sale would go to the William L. and Victorine Q. Adams Foundation, a private grant-making foundation that awards scholarships to Black Baltimore residents and other charitable work.
“It was always my intent to develop the property,” Rodgers said. “The highest and best use of that property is for residential structures.”
But after more than a decade and with the property still undeveloped, Rodgers was approached last year by Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley with a proposition — make the 5-acre property a park.
“I thought it would pull on his heartstrings,” Buckley said, who had heard from residents of the Baywoods of Annapolis assisted living facility that they wanted a park on the site rather than more houses. The mayor then began distributing the biography of Willie Adams to everyone he knew to emphasize the historical significance of the beach and gathered a group of stakeholders to raise funds.
“We are going to have a nationally recognized site here dedicated to this amazing history,” he said. “Some towns would kill for this kind of music history, not just Carr’s Beach, but WANN. You can’t buy that stuff, it really happened here and I want to make it part of our identity.”
This month, when Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state was putting $4.8 million toward the purchase and another $2 million would come from the federal government for the project, the dream of preserving the beach became possible.
“It’s good that there’s a small piece that people can remember and tell the current and next generations so that they know about the history of this area,” Rutherford said. “Even though it’s only five acres, it can help become a learning experience for folks to put things in perspective in terms of the progress that has been made.”