The story of Carr’s Beach is a legend in Annapolis.
It was a Black resort on the Chesapeake Bay, a refuge in the era of Jim Crow and a home for names at the very top of American music history.
Now, Maryland is one step closer to saving the final piece of that heritage as a waterfront state park to celebrate its legacy.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth introduced language Wednesday instructing the DNR to coordinate with local groups on the 5-acre Elktonia Beach parcel off Bembe Beach Road. It’s now part of a massive bill she wrote that would drastically reshape how Maryland maintains and expands its network of parks.
Next, the Annapolis Democrat will work to fence off money already in the budget for parks and recreation to fund a deal in the works with the owner for more than a year. Some money already is included in Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget.
“I’ve been working on this in the background for the last year. Trying to nudge it along,” Elfreth said.
Her efforts build on negotiations between owner Theo Rogers, the Chesapeake Conservancy, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, and historian Vince Leggett to preserve the land.
The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit based in Virginia, worked with the coalition to negotiate a contract to buy the land that lasts through August, Leggett confirmed. All that remained was to finalize a financing package from government and private sources to meet the roughly $6 million price tag.
“While Carr’s and Sparrows Beaches have been developed, there is a fantastic opportunity to create a public park from the remaining 5 acres of beautiful waterfront property that once also belonged to the Carr family,” said Jody Couser, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Conservancy.
Rogers could not be reached for comment.
Carr’s Beach is long gone, plowed under by condos and apartment buildings constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. So is Sparrow’s Beach, a pleasure beach run by the same family.
What’s left is Elktonia, part of the same family's 180 acres home to Carr's and Sparrow's that stretches along the Chesapeake Bay from Chinks Point to the saltwater pond known as Heron Lake.
Together, they represent a source of immense pride for the Black community in Annapolis, in the perseverance of its culture, the legacy of the entrepreneurial spirit and people that form the bedrock of identity.
And it has an environmental legacy, a place where generations of Black Marylanders enjoyed the Chesapeake Bay when they were barred from other beaches because of their race.
That story is one often told in Annapolis. No one tells it better than Vince Leggett, a historian who has spent years highlighting the role of Black Americans working and living on the bay through his nonprofit Blacks on the Chesapeake.
“This project is a dream come true for me for the Blacks of the Chesapeake, and really serves of the capstone over the last years. More specifically, over the last 15 years, for preserving the history of Elktonia, Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches," he said.
Many groups celebrate Black history, sharing photos and oral histories from the beach years. There’s a mural in downtown Annapolis. But it's a story worth sharing again.
At the start of the 20th century, the Annapolis Neck Peninsula was a waterfront haven for Black Americans. The city of Annapolis was small compared to its borders today and much of the area surrounding it was farmland or the site of scattered homes.
Then a change started in the 1890s when abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his family visited the area. The story goes that he liked the idea of a house where he could sit at the end of his life and look at the Eastern Shore, where he was born in slavery.
His son, Charles, would eventually buy land from a local farmer and build a house even if his father didn't live to see it. It became the Black enclave of Highland Beach.
Much of the Annapolis Neck is low-lying and was considered too swampy to be suitable for Maryland’s prize cash crop, tobacco. There were too many mosquitos to be good for home building.
In 1902, Frederick Carr took advantage of that lack of interest to buy his own land. A formerly enslaved man, he worked as an adult at the Naval Academy. After retirement, he and his wife, Mary, bought 180 acres between Back Creek and the Chesapeake Bay.
At first, the family farmed but soon began hosting events and picnics for Annapolis area churches and other groups, even hosting overnight guests. By 1926, two years before Frederick Carr’s death, the Carrs formalized what they had created and founded Carr’s Beach Co.
Their beach joined a string of resorts along the Chesapeake Bay before the bridge opened the Eastern Shore and the Atlantic beaches to vacationers and daytrippers. But unlike Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches, the majority – places like Beverly, Trident and Bay Ridge beaches – were for whites only.
What the Carr family created was not only a Black-owned business but a safe haven where Black people could enjoy the bay and be themselves. Safety was a genuine concern.
A Black man was lynched in 1909 in Annapolis. Another was railroaded to the gallows for the murder of a white woman in 1917. Ku Klux Klan members paraded the streets on horseback in 1926.
So, Carr's and Sparrow's beaches were much more than just a beach.
After Frederick Carr’s death, daughters Florence Carr Sparrow and Elizabeth Carr Smith began advertising summer boarding at their farmhouse and outing from their beach.
Eventually, the sisters separated the land into two businesses, Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach. They put up a fence, then ran them as adjacent but connected resorts for the next 20 years.
In 1931, Sparrow added ballfields and beach chairs, boat rides and entertainment. Four years later, Smith followed her example and adding some of the same improvements.
“Think of it, two African American women owning beachfront property in Annapolis that attracted people from up and down the East Coast,” Leggett said. “That was phenomenal.”
Together, the beaches began drawing Black people from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia. By the time Carr died in 1948, the sites had modest facilities but had a lot of potential.
That attracted the interest of a famous figure from Baltimore, William “Little Willie” Adams.
Adams was one of the wealthiest men in Baltimore, with his fortune rooted in illegal sources. Over several decades he took control of the Baltimore numbers racket, a kind of lottery in the days when all gambling was illegal. Bets were often nickles and dimes, but it added up.
You can look at what happened next in two ways. He laundered that money by investing in legal businesses. Or he provided investment power and support that Black entrepreneurs couldn’t get from white-owned banks.
Both are true. He became a mentor to generations of Black business owners during the Jim Crow era, and through a succession of partners had interests in real estate, bars and restaurants and even the Baltimore packing brand, Parks Sausages.
Then the numbers king took an interest in the Annapolis beaches as both a summer getaway and another place to put his money. In 1941, he and a handful of partners purchased land from the Carrs. They built five cabins just north of Sparrow's Beach and called it Elktonia Beach.
He arrived just as the vision of the Annapolis Neck Peninsula as a destination for the Black middle class was coming true. While Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches were attractive to the working class looking for a day's or weekend's outing, Leggett said, the waterfront extending a few miles down the shore was becoming a popular site for summer homes by doctors, lawyers and wealthy merchants.
That farmland bought by Charles Douglass grew until residents incorporated it as a town in 1920, a legal step that allowed it to circumvent property laws used to block Black homeownership in white neighborhoods. Soon more development followed with the formation of Venice Beach next door, and then Oyster Harbor and Bay Highland across Oyster Creek.
By the time Adams arrived, the wave of summer home construction reached all the way down toward Thomas Point with the development of Arundel on the Bay.
After Carr died in 1948, Adams convinced her son Frederick and his wife, Gail, to redevelop Carr's Beach and buy up any available parcels. He poured in money and bought more land, hoping to create a summer expansion for his nightclub businesses in Baltimore.
“Through multiple acquisitions of shack-strewn, overgrown parcels of land along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, he pieced together a swath of properly sizable enough to accommodate his plan for a warm-weather counterpart to the Pennsylvania Avenue entertainment corridor (in Baltimore.),” Mark R. Cheshire wrote in his 2016 biography of Adams, “They Call me Little Willie.”
Over the next few years, Adams added a sprawling pavilion, a nightclub and restaurants, amusement rides and nickel slot machines. That’s when Carr’s Beach took off as an entertainment center, and its story most people recognize.
Sunday afternoon concerts featured nationally known musicians from the “Chitlin Circuit,” Black performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, James Brown, and The Drifters working in clubs before segregated Black audiences.
Thousand of fans would turn out for those afternoon concerts, but almost as many came for dances and weeknight music from local bands. Adams worked with local radio station owner Morris Blum to broadcast the concert every Sunday, hosted by the famous announcer Hoppy Adams.
The numbers king and his partners controlled it all, according to a 2013 history by Andrew W. Kahrl. They owned the music and entertainment equipment, the midway and vending machines and the liquor and beer for the bars and restaurants.
The music and summer festivities eventually attracted white audiences, making it a rare interracial resort. Among those who saw performances in the 1950s and '60s were St. John’s College students, two of whom would create separate record labels, Atlantic and Elektra.
The end of the era arrived with Maryland integration in the 1960s. Just like many Black-owned businesses, Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches saw its customers heading to previously whites-only beaches like Sandy Point and Ocean City to see what they’d been missing.
Leggett said the black entertainers had other places to be, too, with access to more money as their music gained wider and whiter listeners. They weren’t playing for travel money anymore.
“Those two things helped participate the end,” Leggett said.
By the late 1960s, much of the magic was gone. A new management company out of Washington, D.C., tried to attract a new audience, staging country music festivals and rock concerts.
Then, Anne Arundel County used eminent domain to force Florence Sparrow to sell part of her land to construct a wastewater treatment plant. That fueled more development in the area.
Annapolis annexed part of the land across Back Creek, and soon new houses and apartments were coming. The county kept the rest but rezoned it for apartments, condos and townhouses.
New residents began to complain about weekend traffic and noise. A city alderman tried to convince the county to stop issuing permits for concerts. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were the last to perform at Carr’s Beach, playing to a small crowd in 1973.
Adams was also increasingly legit. He would eventually become a consultant for the state when it formed its own numbers game, The Maryland Lottery. He and his partners began selling the beaches and their other property for development.
First, it was a massive condominium complex over the site of Carr’s beach, then a complex of apartments. Then the owners sold a parcel known as Bembe Beach for development into the Baywoods retirement community.
Soon after, people in the community began to wake up and realize what they’d lost and what was left.
Much of what has captured the public’s imagination has been the music. But to Leggett and others, the sense of identity and community lost with the demise of the beach resorts is what is worth preserving.
That was the seed. While the Carr and Sparrow beaches were gone, Elktonia was still there. Adams died in 2011, and control of the land passed to his former partner, Rogers.
Eventually, his company started talks with the city about approval for waterfront homes. Buckley said he latched onto the idea of saving it during a meeting with Baywoods residents.
“We started out by having a community meeting with Baywoods,” Buckley said. “They preferred a heritage park dedicated to the history of Carr’s Beach than more waterfront homes.”
The mayor enlisted the Chesapeake Bay Conservancy, which began working on negotiations and financing. Eventually, the coalition would grow to include the DNR and Sen. Ben Cardin’s office.
Apparently conscious of the legacy, Rogers agreed to consider ways to save it. While the conservancy and the others worked on financing to buy it, plans for the homes continued through the planning process, Buckley said.
That’s where Elfreth entered the picture. A leader on environmental legislation, she and Del. Eric Luedtke partnered on legislation to provide a massive boost of funding for Maryland State Parks.
The Great Maryland Outdoors Act is based on a commission set up last year to study the state of Maryland’s network of parks. Headed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the commission recommended what Luedtke called a “new era of park building in Maryland.”
It has a good chance of passing. During a hearing on Wednesday before the House Environment and Transportation Commission, a parade of environmental groups, parks rangers and supporters of Maryland parks talked about endemic overcrowding and delayed maintenance.
No one spoke against it.
The act would create two pools of money using revenue from the state’s recordation tax, one to upgrade parks and the other to create new ones. It would redirect money raised from real estate transactions now going into Program Open Space.
The act also calls on the state to add 100 new parks rangers and associates, set up a commission to identify new parks and generally be the most significant boost to the system since it was founded.
“This is a moon shot for state parks,” Luedtke said in his testimony.
It also would direct the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to pay particular attention to creating parks with specific attributes. Elktonia met three of them - it highlights the legacy of Black Maryland; it's on the water and is in Central Maryland where demand for more park space is greatest.
Pittman, the county executive, said Anne Arundel was ready to contribute $200,000-$300,000, but most of its park development money is already committed. Annapolis was willing to use its share, but that wasn't enough.
So that meant turning to the state.
“The strategy all along has been the state would be the majority of the funding,” Elfreth said.
Now she’s working to finalize that strategy. Her amendments were approved by a Senate committee Wednesday, and the bill was sent to the floor for final votes.
Today, Elktonia is off an inconspicuous private drive off Bembe Beach Road. It’s just down from the wastewater treatment plant and near a city park named for former Mayor Ellen Moyer. It's tucked between the assisted living center on one side, the condos on the other and the Chesapeake Bay.
At the end of that drive, there’s a single house and a long pier out into the Severn River with views of the Chesapeake Bay beyond. It’s unlike any view in Annapolis.
Buckley, ever the dreamer, is already imagining a passive park with a pavilion, upgraded beachfront, traffic improvements and a walkway connecting Moyer park.
He believes that even if the land wasn’t where James Brown sang, Elktonia Beach is still part of the same history. He’s heard that it was known as a place where you could swim up and then sneak into the resort beaches.
Leggett is looking forward to that effort he started 15 years ago, looking for a place to tell the story of the beaches that was more than a photograph.
“Being able to interpret the African American story from this space, particularly when the beaches flourished during the time of segregation when it was difficult for people of color to have leisure activities as well as entertainment, is important,” Leggett said.
“The Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches were meccas of the East Coast."
CORRECTION: This essay has been corrected. The Conservation Fund negotiated the agreement to buy Elktonia.