The noon sky above the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in Annapolis was dull gray Thursday. The water was gray, too. Together, they stretched the flat five miles east toward the dreary gray smudge of Kent Island visible on the horizon.

A tiny gray house stood behind the eroding shoreline. Maybe it was once white, but it isn’t much to look at now — a ramshackle collection of sagging rooflines, tilting chimneys, peeling paint and torn screens.

“It looks like a meth lab,” Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley joked.

But as Vince Leggett explained, this tiny waterfront cottage at the edge of all that glorious, empty, winter gray is a vision. To him and a few dozen others who gathered on what must have once been its backyard, the sight of it was beautiful.

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Purchased with $1.6 million in public and private funds, the home of former Coppin State University President Parlett Moore is more than a real estate find. It puts Annapolis on a path toward creating a unique center for retelling the often-overlooked history of Black men and women who shaped the bay and its culture.

“We were able to save it all — the sand, the beach, the dirt and the water — and tell the story of the Chesapeake Bay in an authentic place,” said Leggett, a historian who has for years highlighted the role of African Americans through his nonprofit Blacks of the Chesapeake.

The Moore property, combined with the adjacent Elktonia Carr’s Beach purchased for $2 million in 2022, will become the new Elktonia-Carr’s Beach Heritage Park.

“We’re just a group trying to lift up a downtrodden people,” Leggett said.

The purchase of the Moore cottage comes as similar efforts are underway on the Eastern Shore, where proposals for a monument at Kent Narrows and a museum in Cambridge are focused on telling the tales of Black watermen.

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But in Annapolis, the stories will be different. They will include those of Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches, Black resorts that were a refuge in the era of Jim Crow and drew some of the biggest names in 20th-century American music.

They will include the day in 1890 when abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his family visited the area and imagined what it would be to look across the bay to the spot where he was born into slavery from the front porch of a free man.

His son, Charles, would eventually buy property from a local farmer to develop the Black enclave of Highland Beach. The land was considered too swampy for Maryland’s prized tobacco, with too many mosquitos for white homeowners.

And the stories will tell how in 1902, a former enslaved man named Frederick Carr took advantage of that lack of interest and bought 180 acres between Back Creek and the bay. He farmed it for a while but soon began hosting events and picnics for churches and other groups.

When Carr passed the land on to his daughters, Elizabeth Carr Smith and Flora Carr Sparrow, they separated it into two businesses. The ballfields and beach chairs, boat rides and entertainment at Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach began drawing Black people from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

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By the time Carr died in 1948, the sites attracted the interest of a famous Baltimore figure, William “Little Willie” Adams.

Adams was one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. He controlled the Baltimore numbers racket, a kind of lottery in the days when all gambling was illegal. He and his partners purchased a waterfront retreat from German-American boaters, the Eintracht Club.

He built five cabins just north of Sparrow’s Beach for himself and his friends and called it Elktonia Beach. Others followed his example, fulfilling the vision of Charles Douglass. The surrounding Annapolis Neck peninsula became a summer haven for the Black middle class from Baltimore and Washington.

One of those drawn by the appeal of a waterfront getaway was educator Parlett Moore, the son of a steamboat captain from the Eastern Shore and the second president of what was then Coppin State Teachers College in Baltimore.

Educated at Howard and Temple universities, he was still the principal of a large segregated high school in Montgomery County in the 1940s. He bought a rental cottage just south of Sparrow’s Beach from Gustav F. Bembe, the son of German immigrants.

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Moore’s new neighbors included Little Willie and his wife, Victorine, a teacher and the first African American woman to serve on the Baltimore City Council.

“So it was really kind of high-end Baltimore educators, business people and influencers that operated here,” Leggett said.

Adams saw the potential for a good investment. He partnered with Carr Smith’s son Frederick to redevelop the family’s resorts. He poured capital into them, building a summer expansion for his nightclub business in Baltimore.

Adams added a sprawling pavilion, a nightclub and restaurants, amusement rides and nickel slot machines, which were legal in Maryland at the time. Sunday night concerts were hosted by Hoppy Adams, who aired them on a groundbreaking local radio program.

“In the words of Hoppy Adams, ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight!’ ” Annapolis Recreation and Parks Director Roslyn said, kicking off a dedication ceremony at the Moore property.

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Carr’s Beach itself is long gone, plowed under by condos and apartment buildings constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. So, too, is Sparrow’s Beach, taken through eminent domain by Anne Arundel County for a wastewater treatment plant.

What’s left is Elktonia and the Moore cottage, together a little more than 6 acres.

They represent a source of immense pride for the Black community in Annapolis, a symbol of the perseverance of culture, the legacy of entrepreneurial spirit, and people whose stories form the bedrock of community identity.

More than 15 years ago, Leggett started working to get limited public access to the Elktonia site for in-person educational programs. He ran into resistance from people who wanted the land developed into more condos.

“I’m lucky enough to have outlived my opponents,” he said. “I went to their funerals just to make sure they were dead.”

The Moore family cottage, which sits on about half an acre, has long been vacant. Although it has a view of the water over a long pier on the Chesapeake Bay, it is obscured by trees and overgrowth from Elktonia-Carr's Beach.
The Moore family cottage, which sits on about half an acre, has long been vacant. Although it has a view of the water over a long pier on the Chesapeake Bay, it is obscured by trees and overgrowth from Elktonia-Carr's Beach. (Rick Hutzell)

Leggett began talking with Buckley, who was elected Annapolis’ mayor in 2017. Buckley was captivated by the story of those Sunday concerts featuring performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, James Brown and The Drifters.

Buckley and Leggett then convinced Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, that it would be worth saving what was left of that legacy in a park, if the land ever became available. Even now, it takes imagination to see past the dilapidated, overgrown state of the property, a sight greatly enhanced by city recreation and parks crews who cleaned it up for Thursday’s announcement.

“When I rode my bike up here, I thought it was owned by some redneck,” Buckley said. “I expected to hear a shotgun and ‘What are you doin’ here, boy?’ ”

Investments in the idea came from Anne Arundel County, the state of Maryland and nonprofits such as the Conservation Fund. More will likely be needed.

“When Gavin, Joel and Vince started talking to me, harassing me, I thought we were done with this,” County Executive Steuart Pittman said. “But here I am.”

Today, the vision has expanded to include connecting the Moore property pier with downtown Annapolis by electric ferry. Watermark, the company that operates several maritime tours around Annapolis, is already developing a narration that would fill in the story of this piece of shoreline.

“This is a destination,” Dunn said.