A 5.4-acre parcel in Annapolis, adjacent to the BayWoods Retirement Community where my wife and I live, seems overgrown and nondescript. Its appearance is deceiving.
In the 1920s, 1930, 1940s and 1950s, this parcel was part of a larger land holding that provided a safe venue for Blacks to enjoy Carr’s, Sparrow’s and Elktonia beaches on the Chesapeake Bay for family fun and recreation. Music groups such as the Drifters, James Brown, Little Richard and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the late1940s and 1950s, offering popular music to large, primarily African-American crowds.
Why is this story now unfolding about the Annapolis Neck once considered too swampy for Maryland’s cash crop, tobacco. The narrative is rooted in a discriminatory culture that followed Reconstruction. Blacks faced constant bigotry and death propagated by the Ku Klux Klan and government negligence, if not acquiescence.
For nearly 18 months, the 5.4- parcel, owned by a Baltimore City real estate developer, has been undergoing a final review process by the Annapolis Planning Commission to determine the feasibility of an expensive 43-townhome community on the only undeveloped waterfront property in Annapolis. At the same time, Mayor Gavin Buckley, Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy president and Vince Leggett, executive director of Blacks of the Chesapeake, have engineered a below-the-radar initiative to purchase the property for a tidy sum to convert it into a Black heritage park.
In fact, it is highly likely that this historic parcel will become a passive state park. Far better than growing townhomes grounded in profit and unconnected to a history based on adaptation to exclusion.
For full disclosure, two BayWoods residents and I have been promoting from the sidelines a park that commemorates a story peculiar to 20th century mistreatment of African-Americans. Our efforts may bear fruit.
The history reflects the commitment by an Annapolis family, later associated with the wealthy numbers king of Baltimore, to cater almost entirely to Black families and their access to Bay beaches for family fellowship and great music.
The Carr and Sparrow families, led by two sisters and daughters of Frederick Carr, the original property owner, developed recreation areas for Blacks forbidden to use beaches exclusively the province of Whites. Segregation in its worst form was in full force.
The same wall of prejudice prevented Black musicians from playing in Ocean City or Atlantic City. That changed in the 1960s.
William “Little Willie” Adams, who built a fortune on running the numbers, laundered/invested his earnings in legitimate enterprises, such as Parks Sausages, one of the first Black-owned businesses to become a public company, acquisition and development of valuable land and the operation of a successful music venue on Carr’s, Sparrow’s and Elktonia beaches.
Adams eventually added a pavilion, nightclub and restaurants, amusement rides and nickel slot machines. He was wise. Carr’s Beach became a notable haven for music, drawing White audiences as well. Ever the entrepreneur, Adams owned the music and entertainment equipment, the midway and vending machines and the liquor and beer for the bars and restaurants.
Once desegregation opened formerly White-only music venues to Black musicians, the Chesapeake Bay beaches became obsolete. Adams then sold his Annapolis Neck properties to real estate developers, including the parcel now occupied by the BayWoods Retirement Community, and an Anne Arundel County sewage treatment plant.
The music is long gone. A vibrant recreation area on the Chesapeake Bay too is in the past. If the effort to establish a state park on property once hallowed by the Black community succeeds, the past will be celebrated.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Photographs by Thomas R. Baden, Jr.
Letters to Editor
Chrissy Aull says
Thank you Howard for bringing this important and rich story forward. I am reminded of The Uptown Club in Chestertown, Md., owned and managed by Mr. Charlie Graves until not so long ago.
These and any history of African American communities is worthy of note, any month of any year. Certainly there is much to discover.
Howard Freedlander says
Thank you, Christy. The history is rich with joy, mixed with exclusion based on skin color. Bigotry was in full bloom.
Lesley Lowe Israel says
Fascinating piece of history! It wasn’t until the end of my junior year in high school in Washington, DC when the Brown decision came down that we learned that DC, the nation’ capital, had a legally segregated school system! And it wasn’t possible to rework the whole school system by fall, so I went through my full time in the city’s public schools in a segregated syustem.
Howard Freedlander says
Thank you, Lesley. Separate but unequal was the order of the day prior to Brown v. Board of Education.
Mark Laurent Pellerin says
Thank you for this. I lived ten years as a boy and in the 60s in Annapolis Roads. We would hear the music from the beaches through the trees and I know I longingly wanted to go see what all the fun was about. as we’d have seen signs here and there and know what the acts and shows were gonna be. We kids had chuckled watching cars, many cars, each loaded to the absolute max with beach-goers as they’d be turning onto Edgewood Road from Forest Dr. It was so popular and not unusual that we’d see full cars with 5 or 6 people in an open trunk with legs dangling, I went to but one event there yet that was an Elks’ event. I’d say we were a bit timid about how little white faces might be greeted as we were surely segregated elsewhere. I’ll certainly never forget my first day in town and going into the now-long-gone gas station at the bottom of Main St. and there being confused by the restroom signs.. “Men”, “Woman” and _____, which I think was “Others”.
Howard Freedlander says
Thank you, Mark.We grew up with constant reminders about separate worlds propagated by bigotry.
Sharon Olson says
Thanks so much for writing about this, Howard. As you know my husband and I only recently moved to Baywoods. Learning about the music and social history of these beaches was exciting. I’ll never forget hearing James Brown at a concert in San Diego (on the “left coast”) when I was a young woman. Let’s hope the mayor and his colleagues can accomplish this great endeavor, creating a Black heritage park. We who live in Baywoods with you are behind you!
Howard Freedlander says
Thank you, Sharon. I fervently hope a state park devoted to Black heritage as exemplified by terrific music and family gatherings will come about.
Cathleen Moore says
Absolutely fascinating. I am currently reading “They call me Little Willie” but I had no idea of
his connection to this property. Thank you for being involved in the attempt
to establish a Black heritage park.