Real summer field trips mean trips to the beach, right? I’ve seen the movies and been in the traffic to the Eastern Shore, so I know it’s true. Two summers ago I even went to Seacrets: I obviously know how to party. But I also know how to ruin things with cynical complaining—about crowds, kids, sand-kicking, open-container laws, and how much work it is just to drag myself down to water that’s frankly too cold to swim in anyway. So, when my ladyfriend told me to suit up and get ready for a summer Saturday, I was simultaneously excited about the chance to do summer “right” and terrified at the prospect of spending many hours in the car and doing a whole lot of work just to relax. God, I’m the worst.
Fortunately, she had a different beach in mind, and just 45 minutes later we were exiting the freeway and getting in line for the bridge where we joined a line of cars waiting for a chance to pay $5 a head ($7 for out-of-state-ers) to join the horde on the beach for a day of people watching and wading. It took a while to find a parking place because the park was packed with busloads of kids from local churches and camps, extended families, and the rare small group. Most folks clearly knew how to do this better than we did, sprawling out with blankets and chairs and umbrellas and shade tents, packed coolers alongside stacks of sand buckets and shovels, iPhones in waterproof lanyards that joined the swimmers. We settled in with our beach chairs, one towel to share (like I said, rookies), a bag of cherries, and our books, but Sandy Point’s really for people-watching.
And there were all kinds of people. There were the little kids wearing full-on flotation suits to guard against even the hint of going under. One of those little guys started to freak out the way kids do, screaming at his father to “get it off, get it off!” and I can’t say I blamed him. It would be like going swimming with a Pillsbury Doughboy costume on. His tears finally subsided, but he was left in the sand. There were also the women who came to the beach in regular old street clothes who held their kids and walked out into the water, their long skirts clinging to their legs. Talk about not giving a shit. And then there were the kids with rafts, the clear Kings of the Beach. Who doesn’t want to climb in an inflatable fire truck, amirite? One raft got away from its owner and was drifting out on the waves of the Chesapeake; that dad who got it just in time was a total hero.
Another thing I noticed as my sunburn ripened (I always seem to be learning the lesson that an overcast day isn’t the same as sunscreen) was how few white people were on the beach. It was an incredibly diverse crowd—except for the sheer paucity of white faces. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just seemed curious, given that the population of the nearest city, Annapolis, is 60 percent white. On this day, from my seat, the beach was about 5 percent white, my ladyfriend and I counting for most of that number. It was especially odd given the history of state and national parks, which for the most part were started first as forest conservation programs, and then as outlets for people with the money for cars and the leisure time to drive them to experience the romance of the great outdoors without having to go too far from home. So, what gives?
Well, it turns out that Maryland’s state parks and beaches were, like all other public spaces (and some private ones), formally segregated until the end of Jim Crow in the 1950s, though desegregation took many decades after that to actually take effect. Sandy Point itself wasn’t established as a state park until after the Great Depression and World War II, when an increase in wealth and leisure time, and the building of the Bay Bridge sent more folks to the Chesapeake Bay looking for recreation. Black people looking to take a dip couldn’t go to Sandy Point, though. They went to Carr’s or Sparrow’s beaches, private resorts catering to Black families. As formal segregation came to an end, black people could go to Sandy Point, and many did, hastening the closing of Carr’s and Sparrow’s. Carr’s Beach has been replaced by fancy condos and Sparrow’s by a sewage treatment plant, thanks to eminent domain and the Sparrow family’s changing needs.
None of this history explains, though, where all the white people are swimming. Does the very fact of desegregation, of having to share public space with people of color, lead white people to just fold up their blankets and beach chairs and go home? Where are the rest of the white people swimming, anyway? Or was this day an anomaly? I wondered about this as I watched kids getting thrown in the air and big sisters engaging in the time-honored tradition of dragging their little brothers into the water for a dunk or two. And then I decided to get in the water and cool off a bit before heading back up to the snack bar for what was seriously the densest funnel cake I have ever had the pleasure of gorging on. I mean, it was solid fried ropes of dough, thick like a ramen noodle cake, and oh, it was delicious. That funnel cake’s worth the price of admission alone, people.