Last remnant of historic Black beaches in Annapolis to become public park

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A view of Elktonia Beach, close to the historic Carr's and Sparrow's beaches, that was purchased by the state of Maryland to be developed into a public beach.

The last remnant of two historic Black-owned beaches in Annapolis will be developed into a public park, thanks to a patchwork of federal, state and local funding.

The State of Maryland is putting up $4.8 million toward the purchase of the 5-acre tract known as Elktonia Beach, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday in a news release. U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland announced last week they secured another $2 million in the fiscal year 2022 omnibus funding bill for the project.


The property is the last remaining piece of the 180-acre property that was home to Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach, two popular resorts on the Chesapeake Bay that served as a haven for the Black community during segregation. The “Beaches,” as they were known, also hosted renowned Black performers during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

“This is a dream come true,” said Vince Leggett, founder and president of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, who for decades has sought to preserve the culture of African American communities on the bay.


“This will be an authentic place to tell the story of not only Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach but also African American life along the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay,” Leggett said.

A bird's eye view of the Elktonia Beach property in Annapolis, which was purchased with federal, state and local funds to develop a public park.

The City of Annapolis, Blacks of the Chesapeake, Chesapeake Conservancy and the State of Maryland entered into an agreement with The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit based in Virginia, to acquire the property from developer Theo Rodgers. Rogers couldn’t be reached for comment about the project.

Plans for the tract may include adding more walking paths and providing public water access, according to the news release from Hogan’s office.

The project is an important step in recognizing and reflecting on both the good and bad aspects of the historic site, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said.

“The significance of Carr’s Beach to the history of Annapolis can never be overstated,” Buckley said. “For over three decades, the beach was the place to play. From Sarah Vaughan to James Brown to Stevie Wonder, all the greats came to play on the water and look out at the Chesapeake Bay. We now have an opportunity to preserve this site and get it the national recognition it deserves.”

A group of Annapolis teenagers at Carr's Beach pose for a picture during a break in the Lionel Hampton Show. Seated in front are Peggy Brooks and Helen Savoy, in rear, Mae Chew, Helma Chew, a visiting friend from New York, and Roberta Dorsey. The two young men are unidentified.

“This partnership will help bring new life to an area that greatly contributed to the rich cultural fabric of Annapolis and the State of Maryland,” said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who has a personal connection to the property — his mother attended concerts there in the 1940s.

The state’s contribution will fund the majority of the land acquisition. Subject to Board of Public Works approval, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is committing $3.68 million in Project Open Space money, which will supplement Project Open Space funds from the City of Annapolis and Anne Anne Arundel County. Hogan also designated $1.2 million for the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation from Local Parks and Playgrounds Infrastructure funding for the acquisition, according to the news release.

After the initial sale, the City of Annapolis will purchase the land from The Conservation Fund, said Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Gregg Bortz.


Thereafter the city would be responsible for the enhancement and upkeep of the land, Buckley said.

The property would have been developed if the coalition of state and local partners hadn’t swooped in to purchase it, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said.

“We’ve been talking to the mayor and our delegation in the Maryland General Assembly and our members of Congress about this for quite some time,” Pittman said. “We don’t care whose park it is as long as [the acquisition is] done.”

The open space program will hold an easement on the property that would conserve ecological attributes and limit the property to passive recreational use, which includes trails, picnic areas and pavilions, and additional amenities, according to Hogan’s office.

In addition to the state funding, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Annapolis Democrat, is sponsoring legislation called The Great Maryland Outdoors Act, which names Carr’s Beach as a new State Partnership Park, thereby recognizing its historic and recreational value to the entire state.

“Elktonia/Carr’s Beach isn’t just a local treasure — it’s important to Maryland’s history,” Elfreth said in a message. “That’s why I’m thrilled that the state is stepping up with a significant investment to preserve and tell this important story for generations to come.”


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In 1902, Frederick Carr, a formerly enslaved person, bought 180 acres of waterfront farmland on the Annapolis Neck once owned by the family of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and Maryland native, according to a history of the area by Visit Annapolis. Carr and his wife Mary Wells Carr farmed the land, took in boarders and hosted picnics and other outings until they founded Carr’s Beach in 1926 as a retreat for Black families.

Their daughter Elizabeth Carr Smith eventually operated the beach and her younger sister Florence Carr Sparrow created the adjoining Sparrow’s Beach in 1931. The pair operated the separate businesses side-by-side for decades, hosting thousands of Black families who were barred from other segregated beaches in the state.

In the afternoon and late into the night, crowds filled a pavilion at Carr’s Beach for dances and performances by the biggest names in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll music, including Chuck Berry, The Temptations, Ike and Tina Turner, The Shirelles, Little Richard and Billie Holiday.

“I think a big part of it is just a story of our resilience and overcoming … because African Americans did not have access to beaches parks and pools and golf courses and other public facilities,” Leggett said. “Therefore, we had to carve out a place where we could come and have self-pride and dignity and not have to look at ‘White-Only’ signs and ‘Colored-Only’ signs and just trying to find a place for relaxation and leisure and recreation.”

Nearly all of Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches have been developed since they closed in the early 1970s.

What remains is the narrow stretch of land off Bembe Beach Road that will serve as a symbol of Black history, Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy president and CEO said in a statement.


“This is a great day for everyone who has held a special place in their hearts for ‘The Beaches,’” Dunn said. “Now this story can truly be told for generations to come.”