Tuesday, July 16, 2024

At this lost ‘Black Eden,’ James Brown and Marvin Gaye rocked the beach

At this lost ‘Black Eden,’ James Brown and Marvin Gaye rocked the beach

Two daughters of a formerly enslaved landowner, a Baltimore gangster-turned-businessman, an Annapolis disc jockey, and stars such as James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald transformed a beach on the Chesapeake Bay into a joyful refuge for African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

Carr’s Beach became one of the hippest seaside music venues in the United States for more than three decades, beginning in the 1940s, until desegregation and suburban development brought its era to an end. The same happened to Sparrow’s Beach next door. Elktonia Beach — which was also part of the Carr family’s original landholding and is now a small Annapolis city park — is all that’s left.

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But Vincent Leggett, founder and president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, has big plans to regain what he can of that “Black Eden,” if only in memory. He believes the Elktonia site could attract visitors interested in a seashore that played an important role in African American history, especially if the bay becomes part of the national park system, as members of Maryland’s congressional delegation have proposed. Last month, the Museum of Historic Annapolis opened a new exhibit on the beaches and their legacy.

“This place was the mecca of Black entertainment in the mid-Atlantic region,” said Leggett, 69, who grew up in Baltimore and became an educator, urban planner, local historian and community advocate. His foundation, incorporated in 1999, grew out of his efforts since the 1980s to preserve the history of Black watermen, crab pickers and others who lived on and worked the bay. “There’s just so much African American history and heritage along this stretch,” he said.

Carr’s Beach originally was part of a 180-acre tract of coastal farmland belonging to Frederick Carr. Carr, who was formerly enslaved and then employed at the U.S. Naval Academy, purchased the property in 1902 and often invited churches to host their picnics there. It passed to his four daughters, two of whom — Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow — created Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach next door, respectively, as a Black resort in 1931. Both hosted musical entertainment, though Carr’s Beach accommodated the biggest acts in its 6,000-seat amphitheater. But neither received much mention in White-owned newspapers.

Leggett said Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches were two of only seven resorts listed in the “Green Book,” a travel guide designed to help Black tourists find safe lodging, dining and entertainment venues when a wrong turn in some parts of the South could put their lives in danger. Highland Beach, a summer enclave inhabited by affluent Black Washingtonians, was nearby. Other resorts on the bay’s western shore, such as Bay Ridge Beach — which styled itself as the “Tahiti on the Chesapeake,” with bathhouses themed on the South Pacific — were Whites only.

But it wasn’t until William Lloyd “Little Willie” Adams got involved that Carr’s Beach became a sensation. Adams, a sharecropper’s son, amassed a fortune running numbers on Baltimore’s streets as part of a $1,000-a-day illegal gambling operation. He also plowed the money back into legitimate Black-owned enterprises, including funeral homes, apartment complexes, beauty parlors and liquor stores. (He even tried to launch a soft drink with boxer Joe Louis.) The Baltimore Sun, in an obituary following Adams’s death in 2011, hailed him as “the city’s first prominent African-American venture capitalist.”

In the 1940s, Adams purchased several pieces of the Carr property. He built a pavilion with a bandstand, brought in slot machines and put up a Ferris wheel. The crowds soon made Carr’s Beach a nationally known destination on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of Black nightclubs, theaters and other venues named after an essential of soul food. Louis trained there the week before his August 1951 fight against Cleveland heavyweight Jimmy Bivins in Baltimore, the Washington Evening Star reported.

The list of musicians who took the stage at Carr’s Beach is a who’s-who of early blues, R&B, and rock-and-roll. Among the superstars who played “race music,” as African American-influenced music was then known, were Brown, Fitzgerald, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Stevie Wonder.

At least 50,000 people flocked to Chuck Berry’s July 1956 concert after “Roll Over Beethoven” had soared to top of the charts, causing a massive traffic jam as fans abandoned their cars and walked, according to an account in the Baltimore Evening Sun. A ticket to the July 1966 Blues Festival, featuring the legendary Muddy Waters, cost only $2 — a little more than $19 in today’s dollars.

Annapolis disc jockey Charles W. Adams Jr. — a.k.a. Hoppy Adams — kept the pulse bumping.

“Tonight, tonight, tonight!” he would shout, a signature tagline to introduce the star-studded lineups. The live shows he emceed at Carr’s Beach were a spillover from the distinctive mix of gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues that Adams spun on WANN AM-1190.

The beaches became a showcase for style, too, Leggett said. Beauty pageant contestants vied to wear the crown of “Queen of the Chesapeake,” and photographs show Black visitors dressed to be seen around its pavilion, with women in dresses and men in straw boaters, with spats on their shoes. Others picnicked in the sand or frolicked in the surf. Admission to the private beaches was 25 cents a head, except close to show time, Leggett said.

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Fans were known to hide sometimes in the trunks of cars to evade the entrance fee, said Leggett, whose parents have pictures of him on the beach dating to 1956. When there were sold-out shows or crowds swelled to such a size that no one else could enter, people swam over from Sparrow’s or Elktonia beach, he said. Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, visited Carr’s Beach while attending St. John’s College, to hear acts that would later appear on his label, according to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley.

The heyday of Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches as a recreational hot spot waned with the end of segregation and the construction of the Bay Bridge, which opened the way to Ocean City and other resorts on the Atlantic Ocean. Frank Zappa played the last concert at the pavilion in 1974. Within a matter of years, Carr’s Beach was gone, having been sold for residential housing. Sparrow’s Beach, which was adjacent to Carr’s Beach, became the site of a wastewater treatment plant.

When Leggett heard around 2006 that a developer hoped to bulldoze the Elktonia Beach tract, he spent 16 years trying to save it. His efforts paid off last August, when a group of Maryland public officials, led by Buckley, and nonprofits including the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, teamed to acquire the five-acre site for a city park.

Though only a small slice of land, Leggett and others said that Elktonia Beach, as the only remnant of Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches, bears outsize importance as an opportunity to showcase Black resilience, entrepreneurship and culture.

“This has always been a passion thing for me, even before I was elected,” Buckley said. “We’re very selective in how we tell our history here in Annapolis, and it leads obviously to the amazing things that happened in Colonial times. But, you know, we have amazing modern history that many cities would kill for. … I see so much potential in that space.”

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At the moment, the Elktonia Beach property isn’t much to look at: just some tick-infested scrub, a ruined pier and a concrete storm drain jutting into the water.

But Leggett envisions building trails through the new parkland, setting up kiosks with panels explaining the beaches’ history and perhaps creating a visitor center that would tell the story not only of one of the most important Black beaches in the South, but the history of Black watermen and others who built their lives around the Chesapeake.

“This is one of the most inspiring places in the country to learn about Black history and the magic of the Chesapeake Bay,” Joel Dunn, who heads the Chesapeake Conservancy, wrote in an email. “Our next step is to purchase the property adjacent to the park and create a first-class visitor center to share these monumental cultural and historical achievements with future generations.”

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