There’s nothing left now but the ghosts. Of a time, place, and people that once passed through—likely in a waft of smoke, peels of voracious laughter, and of course the cacophony of sound. If you close your eyes, and listen closely enough, you may just the hear the notes that once came from the greats—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and others of the Jazz Era who once played and stayed in Ocean City, MD.
The trail of tangible evidence begins and quite nearly ends, with a plaque situated in front of the Henry Hotel, (formerly known as Henry’s Colored Hotel). The hotel is located across Baltimore Avenue from Trimper’s Rides and right next to the bus terminal on South Division Street. Thought to have been built in the late 19th Century, the establishment was one of only two “colored” hotels in the resort. No evidence remains of the other property—known as the Pine Tree Hotel—except for a 1941 map showing it once existed.
During the years before the Civil Rights movement, African Americans who visited, or worked in the resort weren’t permitted to stay in the same hotels or boarding houses as their white counterparts. The segregation went so far that African Americans had their own “beach,” located on the bayside where the Coast Guard Station now stands. In the fall after the main summer season ended, certain days were designated as “Colored Excursion Days” when African Americans could enjoy the ocean side and boardwalk. These rules extended even to the famous performers like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, who entertained guests in the hotel ballrooms and dance establishments, yet weren’t permitted to slumber in the same spaces.
The Pier Ballroom was once a lavish center of entertainment. Located in the Pier Building, the space now occupies Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Under the oddities meant to entertain and surprise, perhaps the floor still exists where the audience once swayed to the jazz swing sounds of Cab Calloway. The windows that allowed patrons a beautiful view of the Atlantic as they danced the night away are now covered over, as is much of this musical time period.
A quote from the Salisbury Times dated July 27th, 1956 offers a glimpse into the entertainment offered at the time.
Dance Land at 17th and Philadelphia Ave. is featuring Duke Ellington in person along with the Metranomes, Johnny Sparrow and his Bow and Arrows and Jane Smith.
According to the Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum, in a section called Looking Back to 1956, Dance Land seemed to be quite the hot spot with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington playing throughout the summer.
|Much has changed since then – the famous spots these legends once performed in are either gone, or have been refurbished into other businesses. It is the Henry Hotel alone that remains unchanged. It is one of the few buildings in downtown Ocean City that could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has not been moved or altered from its original structure, unlike many of the older buildings. Imagine the stories of those who stayed there—perhaps having the opportunity to sit on the wide screened porch and listen in on an impromptu jam session. Or at the very least, pass through the hallways next to some of the world’s greatest entertainers.|
An extensive article published in the Baltimore Sun in 2007, just after the Henry Hotel had received the distinction of being one of only four locations on the Eastern Shore as part of the African American Heritage Trail, indicated that the current owners intended to turn the hotel into a Bed and Breakfast and Museum.
The Bonner Family, who still owns the hotel having purchased it in the 1960’s, has not yet made that transformation to the property. It is unclear as to what’s to become of the Henry Hotel now. Significant for many historical reasons, it stands as a last testament to a time and place that few still living, can remember first-hand. The Bonner family could not be reached for comment.
Special thanks to historians Diane Savage, Linda Duyer, and the Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum for their contributions to this story.
It is our intention to further document the Henry Hotel and the days when the famous Jazz musicians played in Ocean City. If you have any personal stories you’d like to contribute, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.