Beachwood Park Memoirs
A family remembers running one of Maryland’s African-American beach destinations
Published: May 18, 2011
Yvonne Leacock picks her way along the faint path through the trees, ducking under a limb fallen halfway across the trail, searching for something, anything familiar. In her 70s but looking at least a decade younger, she says she hasn’t set foot on this wooded patch above the north bank of Magothy River near Pasadena in Anne Arundel County since 1958, and she recognizes nothing. Treading toward an overgrown slope, she spots two graffiti-spattered stone walls that channel a rutted path down to the water’s edge. Suddenly, with this crumbling landmark in view, it’s all laid out before her.
“There was a diving platform over there, out from the shore,” she says once down by the water’s edge. Pointing to a right angle of thin pilings—eroded stumps now—jutting out into the water from a sandy bank overrun with reeds, she adds, “And this is where people boarded the boat—my father used to take them on cruises. The quote was, ‘Cruise the Magothy River to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.’”
Leacock’s father, Hiram E. Smith, once owned 100 acres on this side of the Magothy, where he ran Beachwood Park. The park’s visitors picnicked in its shady groves, swam in the placid channel with its sandy bottom, and lounged as Smith’s small fleet of boats motored them down the river and back. In the 1940s and ’50s, African-Americans from Baltimore and all around the mid-Atlantic flocked to Beachwood Park by the busload for a bit of that warm-weather experience of grass and trees and sand and water often denied them elsewhere by the segregation of the time. For thousands of black families—not least the Smiths—Beachwood Park was summer.
Leacock’s brother and sister, Gerald Smith and Deborah Jones, who drove separately, make their own way down the path to join her by the water. “This is pretty rugged,” Smith, natty in a pale Kangol, says. “This is what it was like in 1945.”
Hiram Smith came to Baltimore in the 1920s from rural Virginia, and soon after founded West Baltimore’s Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, of which he was pastor for 40 years. His ministry couldn’t support his growing family of seven on its own, so he bought and sold real estate. Thanks to his church, he knew many people. Thanks to his business savvy, he spotted an opportunity. So-called “black beaches” weren’t anything new; in 1893, Charles Douglass, son of Baltimore’s abolitionist legend Frederick Douglass, had founded one of the first in what is now the town of Highland Beach as a private enclave for affluent African-Americans further down the bay, past Annapolis. But many waterside spots were off-limits to black bathers, and some that were accessible allowed alcohol. “He felt that there wasn’t a family-friendly park for blacks,” Leacock says. “So he saw a market.”
Using a white straw-buyer to purchase 65 acres, Smith enlisted his sons and daughters, all teenagers or preteens, to help him clear the land for picnic sites and a wooden pavilion. The older trees on the land today stand because Smith wanted them there. “That was one of the things he liked to boast about that made it more attractive,” Leacock says. “The other two parks for blacks in those days were on clear land—there was not much shade.” In 1948, Smith announced the opening of nonsegregated Beachwood Park, “Maryland’s finest interracial beach and amusement park.”
The “interracial” part caused problems early on. Though the majority of Beachwood Park’s clientele was black, Gerald Smith recalls, “This was the only park where blacks and whites who wanted to assemble together would have an opportunity to do so.” Progressive groups and companies that wanted to have events for their black employees, such as toolmaker Black and Decker, reserved groves for get-togethers. “And for that, they had articles that would appear in the local papers where people would write in and say Hiram Smith was trying to mongrelize the nation,” Gerald Smith says.
Such resistance only fueled her father’s sense of purpose, Leacock says: “He knew he was second to no person because of skin color, and he let them know he knew it.”
Hiram Smith had a sense of purpose with his children too, putting them to work selling tickets, renting bathing suits, and cleaning up after guests, and hauling trash. “There was no mercy here,” quips Jones, who says she drove the park’s garbage to the dump in her father’s truck when she just 9 years old.
Without warning, her brother’s voice rises about 50 decibels and takes on a ministerial authority: “Gerald! Clean up Grove 6! Get outta the water, boy! Get up here and clean this park!”
Each Saturday dozens of buses full of church groups from Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and beyond rolled into the parking lot across the road and released hundreds of revelers on the park. Sundays sometimes drew a less reverent crowd; while the Rev. Smith occupied his pulpit in Baltimore, his older children ran the games of chance on the park’s small midway. “We had slot machines, we had pan games, we had table games,” Gerald Smith acknowledges with a grin. “It wasn’t exactly consistent.”
After the weekend crowds headed home the Smiths had most of the week, and the park, to themselves. “After the cleanup on Monday, it was carefree summers,” Leacock says. Having left behind school and their Baltimore home on Fulton Avenue for the season, they spent weekdays enjoying the park and the water. Teenage Gerald particularly enjoyed running the Magothy in Slipknot, his own speedy red and green motorboat. “Back then, to see some black folks water-skiing up and down that river was a little hard for some folks to take,” he says.
As an elementary-schooler in the ’50s, retired Rouse Co. vice president Anthony Hawkins spent his summers living with his best friend, Warren Carroll, just down the road from Beachwood. “They had a Ferris wheel [and other rides], and we’d go watch the shows, watch the people boating and swimming,” he recalls. “It was just fun. It was like a paradise for kids. We never took our swimming trunks off all summer long. We never wore shoes all summer long. All you did was fish and boat and swim and water ski all summer long. A great way to come up, huh?”
Beachwood Park flourished after surviving an early legal challenge from its white neighbors, who argued that the purchase of an additional section of acreage went against restrictive covenants that barred sale of the land to anyone of “Negro, Chinese, or Japanese decent.” The state Supreme Court ruled in Smith’s favor in 1949 but another legal decision would have a more chilling effect: 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of ending segregation in the United States.
“A lot of places that were unavailable opened up,” Gerald Smith says. “Before we had a captive audience because there was no other place to go, but people started considering other options. We still did all right . . . but business started to decline after Brown.”
Smith says that he helped his father with the business as much as he could as the’50s transitioned into the ’60s, but he and the other Smith children were heading off to college, and in his case, law school. Hiram Smith lost the property to foreclosure in 1963 and died in 1964. The land somehow escaped development, and over the decades the cleared trees and brush grew back. Anne Arundel County acquired the property in 2002 and redubbed it Beachwood Park, though it has made no noticeable improvements so far. Other than some graffiti and a few bottles, there are no signs that anyone has enjoyed themselves here recently.
And ultimately that’s OK with Smith’s family. Beachwood Park provided a summertime haven for thousands of black churches and families, a respite from the city and from a sometimes harsher world. But as idyllic as those times sound when Leacock or Gerald Smith recount them, times changed.
“It was a wonderful time,” he says. “I got a great education from being here, I got exposed to a lot of things, and I had a lot of fun. I don’t feel bad at all. It’s not like I haven’t thought about the value of waterfront land—sometimes you think, What if? But it’s a passing thought, it does not linger, and it does not cost me any heartbreak or depression. I am thankful for what we had.”
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