Film helps African-Americans remember a lively Carr's Beach

Carr's Beach, once one of the few recreational outlets for Baltimore's African-American families, was the destination for an annual excursion from a black-owned business in the city. Now a teacher had found footage of many of those 1940's trips and hoping some area seniors can help him identify the participants.
Carr's Beach, once one of the few recreational outlets for Baltimore's African-American families, was the destination for an annual excursion from a black-owned business in the city. Now a teacher had found footage of many of those 1940's trips and hoping some area seniors can help him identify the participants. (Handout photo)

Decades ago, a trip to segregated Ocean City presented far too many challenges for African-American families. Instead they went to a sandy peninsula near Annapolis, known as "the beach," for a day's outing.

Carr's Beach — its proper name — offered swimming, picnics and entertainment. Many recall performances by up-and-coming stars such as Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Ray Charles, who, while touring on the Chitlin' Circuit, stopped at Carr's, one of the few local venues open to black entertainers of that time.

"I remember it was the closest we could get to the water," said Delores McIntyre, 79, a lifelong city resident. "The water was so clear and there was great entertainment, especially Ray Charles."

Carr's Beach prospered for about 50 years before it closed in the early 1970s. Condos have long since replaced the stage, picnic pavilions and ball fields at the popular bayside resort. Until recently, it was mainly documented in photographs and memories.

Now a 70-year-old film has resurfaced that could offer families another way to relive their traditions. As part of what they call the Carr's Beach Identification Project, two Baltimoreans hope to use the film to elicit and document recollections of the resort where the Severn River meets theChesapeake Bay.

Caldwell McMillan, a teacher in Baltimore who spent much of his childhood at the resort where his parents were employed, found five rolls of film on eBay. He bought them for $680 and made them into a DVD.

"I had to have it," he said. "It is part of my history and the history of African-Americans in this area. I was lucky enough to find it and bring it home."

The 80-minute, unedited film shows annual company beach outings for the Mutual Benefits Society's employees. McMillan and colleague Thom Saunders showed the film Thursday at the Walbrook branch library, hoping their guests, all of them seniors, might help put names to the figures in the film.

"Blacks from all over came to Carr's," said Saunders, who owns a production company and conducts historic tours of Baltimore. "They could not go anywhere else — not Sandy Point or Ocean City."

In 1955, after a five-year court battle initiated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Supreme Court ruled that all Maryland's beaches should be desegregated. The decision gave all residents access to public beaches.

But McMillan and Saunders said the past should not be forgotten.

"Despite all the negatives, a lot of positives came out of that time," said Saunders. "Many of us have fond memories of growing up in the black community. Yes, we were segregated, but we didn't know any better."

McIntyre, who attended the filming Thursday night, recalled bus excursions to the beach from Pennsylvania Avenue.

"There were no fans or air conditioners then," she said. "It was so great to get out of that hot house and go to the beach."

Cars were rare in her neighborhood, she said. But her stepfather, a delivery man for a potato chip maker, would drive the family there in the company truck.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture showcases memorabilia from Carr's Beach, which is considered a cultural institution. The film is a real find, said Terry Taylor, education program coordinator.

"It is unfathomable today that there were only a few resorts open to African-Americans," she said. "It is fascinating that they have found film from one of them."

Michelle Joan Wilkinson, the museum's director of collections and exhibitions, said, "Film as a medium is not an area as fully known and explored for African-American families. We are delighted to learn about this one and about the public opportunity to see it."

Eugenia Collier, 83, a retired college professor, attended the library gathering. She was certain she would recognize her grandmother Minnie B. Lewis and a few other family members in the crowd of beachgoers on screen. She had hoped might even spot her teenage self.

Though she didn't spot herself or her relatives, she did identify several family friends, and plans to watch again just in case she missed somebody. A second viewing might also stir a few more long-forgotten feelings.

"I still remember the smell of the water, the texture of the sand and my fear of jellyfish," she said.

Lewis was vice president of the Mutual Benefits Society, an insurance company that her brother founded in the late 1930s.

"There were no jobs for women back then," Collier said. "So when my grandmother's brother started his insurance company, he hired all his sisters. He did right well, and the business was a real family affair."

It was a time when everything was black or white, she said.

"Baltimore was completely segregated," said Collier. "Stores, schools, beaches, even water fountains. We have to remember those times, all the way back to slavery. We are not still there, but those times made us who we are."

About 60 people attended the showing, which was taped, and shared their recollections. Tommy Mosely, 86, started his singing career at the beach and later became the lead singer of the Ink Spots. Loretta Williams brought a photo of her now 96-year-old stepmother posing with Dizzy Gillespie at the beach.

Erla McKinnon, 92, thanked the organizers "for bringing us together with our history,"

McMillan said the film helps him focus on the positive and the good times the beach afforded. When he was a child in the 1950s, his parents thought he was too young for the shows, but he could hear the music.

"Before integration, everybody came there to perform," he said, listing well-knowns like Fats Domino, Otis Redding andSmokey Robinson.

Crowds swelled into the hundreds for Sunday afternoon music fests that drew people from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington and even New York, he said. He recalled a towering security guard who kept order with one promise to anyone who misbehaved.

"He would tell us, 'I will beat you so badly that you won't see over a dime,' and everybody believed him," McMillan said. "Even that is funny now. The beach was just the place to have fun."

As the film rolled, Saunders asked the audience to help determine the exact year using the cars in the background. Men called out, "'47 Ford!" and "'49 Chevy!"

"So we are still in the '40's?" he asked.

A chorus of voices replied that it was likely later than that, reminding their host: "We drove used cars!"


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