The Wilson Line

Standing Up Against Segregation

In the twentieth century, Pier 8 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and then Broadway Pier in Fells Point used to be the launching point for the steamboats of the Wilson Line. The Wilson Line extended from Philadelphia to Wilmington to Baltimore and ran a line of excursion boats out of Baltimore after WWII. The “Bay Belle,” one of the Baltimore excursion boats, carried passengers on day trips to places such as Betterton Beach. 

Although the Wilson Line steamboat company advertised sunny trips to the beach and fun at resorts, this was overshadowed by the company’s practice of segregation. In July of 1944, a group of African American teenagers from Philadelphia were separated from white passengers on the Wilson Line ship the Maybelle. According to an article from the Baltimore Afro American, Wilson Line employees placed a rope across the dance floor to separate white and black passengers, and even went so far as to close their game room to prevent integration. In 1950, the company continued discriminatory practices by refusing to sell tickets to four African American patrons: Helena Haley, Charles Haley, Loncie Malloy, and Prunella Norwood. The four patrons sued the Wilson Line and as a result the company was ordered to end its discriminatory practices by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1951.

The shadow of segregation extended from the steamboat line to the beaches. For example Ocean City, one of the most popular beach attractions today, once banned African Americans from enjoying its sunny shores. Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, two African American sisters, fought back against segregation by founding Carr’s Beach in 1926 and Sparrow’s Beach in 1931. Both sisters inherited pieces of land from their father on the Annapolis coast facing the Chesapeake Bay. Carr’s and Sparrow’s beaches were known for ample entertainment and hosted many famous African American performers such as Billie Holiday, James Brown, and Ray Charles. For many African Americans along the east coast, Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches provided a safe vacation spot.

In the face of discrimination, the African American community rallied in order to fight for their civil rights. As a result of the power of the black community, the ICC forced the Wilson Line to adopt integration and beaches desegregated.



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