Elizabeth Carr Smith & Florence Carr Sparrow
For more than forty years, from 1931-1974, two sisters from Anne Arundel County, Elizabeth Carr Smith & Florence Carr Sparrow owned and operated Carr’s & Sparrow’s Beaches. These two sisters were the first African American females to operate such large business enterprises in Annapolis, Maryland.
They made it possible for thousands of African Americans in the mid-Atlantic to enjoy the beach and associated entertainment during the period of segregation. These two beaches were open to the public. They were located on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula south of Annapolis, off the Chesapeake Bay, and at the mouth of the Severn River.
The sisters’ father, born about 1845 into slavery, Frederick Carr, worked at the Naval Academy as a sailor and then as a cook for fifty years after emancipation. He purchased a house in Annapolis as early as 1873 and began to buy land on Back Creek in 1891. He retired in 1902, and he and his wife Mary Wells Carr began to grow fruits and vegetables and raise livestock on the land. By 1926, the family-owned 180 waterfront acres and had begun taking in boarders and hosting picnics and outings. They named one water location Carr’s Beach and the other Sparrow’s Beach. The Beaches' sandy shores became a waterfront retreat for black families. While they continued to host family picnics, church outings, and organizations during the week, they began presenting some of the most well-known African American performers including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Sarah Vaughn on the weekends.
Although the beaches were managed by the family as early as 1926, in 1931 the family business transferred ownership of the beaches to the sisters. Elizabeth owned and operated Carr’s Beach and Florence operated Sparrow’s Beach. Even though the Beaches were next to each other, the sisters operated them as separate businesses. Ads for both Beaches appeared in African American newspapers, helping the Beaches to draw folks not just from D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia but from all over the East Coast and as far away as Ohio.
Sparrow’s Beach had cottages for rent, a playground, a baseball diamond, as well as umbrellas and chairs. During the mid-30s, an open-air pavilion was constructed. Florence even had a contract with a music promoter which provided a steady stream of entertainers for Sunday afternoon shows. Additional attractions for children were established, and food stands were added.
Carr’s Beach developed similar attractions and got the attention of William L. “Little Willie” Adams, a Baltimore businessman interested in investing in the future. In 1948, following the death of Elizabeth, her son, Frederick Carr, became the owner of Carr’s Beach. “Little Willie” became involved with the operation of the Beaches with an infusion of $150,000 capital, and with Frederick, established the Carr’s Beach Amusement Company.
Maryland had approved legalized gambling in Anne Arundel County in 1943. Using this new capital, rides and amusements were constructed for children, and the midway was lined with slot machines. WANN, a black-oriented radio station in Annapolis, was just taking off with popular DJ Charles Adams, better known as “Hoppy” Adams. He became the DJ for the already popular Sunday shows which were broadcast live from the Beach. This helped draw hundreds and thousands of visitors every week to see stars such as Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Orioles, Esther Phillips, Jackie Wilson, Little Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. There were published reports that on the evening of July 21, 1956, an estimated 70,000 people came to Carr’s to see Chuck Berry, but only 8,000 were admitted. In 1962, 11,000 fans came to see James Brown at one of the last big shows. The last show, in 1973, featured Frank Zappa, a white Baltimore board rocker, in an attempt to save the venue. An estimated 8,000 concertgoers were turned away.
Florence Sparrow reorganized her business model for Sparrow’s Beach to appeal to those seeking a quieter and less commercial summer retreat. Rather than general admission, she offered group reservations for organizations and churches, as well as renting out cottages for weekends and longer.
Neither of these actions was enough to save the beaches, which like many African American businesses became victims of desegregation. Lacking the necessary capital, they were unable to compete with the newly opened white venues. Nevertheless, Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches played an important role in the lives of many African Americans who were denied access to beaches by Jim Crow. They provided safe and welcoming places for recreation, vacations, and entertainment for almost fifty years (1926-1974). They are gone now, but they live on in the memories of many.
Chesapeake Harbour, a gated community, stands at the site of the Beaches. (9) As a reminder, there is a marker on the Edgewood Road bike path. Recently a 150-foot mural was installed at the Maryland Cultural and Conference Center (MC3) on Park Place. The mural seeks to reflect the energy of the Beaches but also encourages the public to learn more about their cultural and historic significance.
Elizabeth Carr Smith lived until 1948 and her sister Mary Florence Carr Sparrow lived until 1989.