During warm summer days, state parks with beach access can be an ideal getaway. The sand-covered shorelines offer an escape from the busy world, a place to enjoy family and friends, and an opportunity to cool off from the sweltering heat.
For a long time, however, Black Americans were denied these simple pleasures. Within the Chesapeake region and throughout the United States, the ability to use and enjoy public beaches has not always been the same for everyone, and even today, gaps still exist. Lingering effects of discrimination result in a lack of access to not only beaches, but also parks, forests and other outdoor spaces.
Segregation is a troubling piece of our history, but it helps us as a society to step back and acknowledge how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. The following Chesapeake beaches of the past and present reflect the importance of access to the outdoors for all Americans, especially those who have historically been excluded from public spaces.
Sandy Point State Park
Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Maryland, was pivotal in the movement towards racial integration and improved recreational access in America. When Sandy Point opened in 1952, it became the only state park in Maryland that African Americans could use. However, the beaches’ public bathhouses and facilities were still separate based on imposed racial segregation. The east side of the beach was designated for “coloreds” and saw considerably less maintenance and upkeep than the south side of the beach, which was marked for whites only. A few months following the park’s opening, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit, which resulted in Lonesome v. Maxwell, a case that went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that segregated facilities lacked equal quality. Today, Sandy Point is a popular and inclusive environment that includes initiatives such as a bilingual interpretive outreach program.
Highland Beach, located in Annapolis, Maryland, was founded in 1893 by Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. It was Douglass’ goal to turn Highland Beach into a community for African Americans—and since racial discrimination kept Black residents from buying homes in the area themselves, he entered the real estate industry, purchased waterfront property in Highland Beach and sold parcels of land to friends and family. The beach quickly became a popular vacation spot and refuge from segregation for affluent Black Americans and famous intellectuals such as W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes. Highland Beach is now a private community beach surrounded by new developments. Rather than accommodating vacationers, it’s now home to full-time residents, some of whom are descendants from Highland Beach’s first settlers.
Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beach
Between 1926 and 1931, two daughters of a former slave founded Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach in the Annapolis area. As segregation continued in the United States, the two beaches included multiple African American owned resorts where Black Americans from all over the Mid-Atlantic region visited to enjoy swimming, picnicking and live music by popular Black artists such as Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The beaches were eventually entered into the Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans looking for welcoming places. As American beaches desegregated, African Americans had more options for vacation destinations and began to visit the two beaches less frequently. Today, a luxury condominium resort sits in place of where the beaches once were. But for those who visited Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches, the empowering memory of a black-owned resort in time of segregation lives on.
While we celebrate almost 70 years of desegregated beaches, the lingering effects of environmental injustice remain. Even today, social, physical and political barriers exist for people of color and low-income communities in accessing public beaches. Fortunately, the Chesapeake Bay Program has committed to increasing public access to the water through 300 new sites by 2025. Check out our progress and find a public access site near you on ChesapeakeProgress.