OCEAN CITY --For decades, acclaimed black musicians and entertainers - Count Basie, Duke Ellington, a young James Brown - rubbed shoulders with less famous tenants in the brown-shingled boarding house known as Henry's Colored Hotel. There was hardly anywhere else they were allowed to stay....
Now, "the Henry" is getting its due, named yesterday by a group of dignitaries, black and white, as one of four African-American heritage landmarks on the Lower Eastern Shore. There's hope that with such recognition, the old hotel, which is in need of a paint job and other repairs, can be revived as a bed-and-breakfast and museum.
The place was a beacon for African-Americans in a time when so much - jobs, hotel rooms, restaurants, dance halls and clubs - depended on skin color.
"I was here during the difficult times when the hotel was just about the only place black people could stay," said Marva Bonner Camper, 66, whose mother, Pearl Bonner, bought the Henry with a $400 investment and a rent-to-own deal in 1964. The family continued to run the hotel until about five years ago.
"The hotel was important, really, to people in this whole area of Ocean City," said Camper. "It was a community."
The Boardwalk was off limits, as was the ocean-side beach. According to Camper, African-Americans were allowed to use a dune and beach on Sinepuxent Bay, a spot now occupied by the Coast Guard.
For many years, Ocean City merchants opened the Boardwalk after the summer season for "Colored Week" or "Colored Excursion Days," a rush of pent-up spending that boosted the bottom line for shopkeepers who kept the rest of the season segregated.
The Henry, a modest, three-story, 20-room hotel with a white picket fence at Division Street and Baltimore Avenue, was a summertime second home for some African-Americans - teachers out to make a second income, college students working to pay tuition or middle-class families who ran small businesses in the few blocks informally allotted them in the southernmost corner of town near the Ocean City Inlet.
"I remember coming here as a little boy," said Worcester County Commissioner James Purnell, 70, who grew up in nearby Berlin. "There's a lot that's symbolic about the old hotel surviving all through segregation up to now when so much has changed."
Built about 1895, the Cape Cod-style building has stood for more than 80 years under African-American ownership.
The hotel was bought in 1926 by Charles T. and Louisa Henry, who passed it on to their two sons before it was purchased by Pearl Bonner, a former teacher who had run another boarding house nearby on Worcester Street.
Bonner ran her businesses with a firm hand and help from her daughters, who worked a variety of jobs to pay tuition at then-Morgan State College.
"My sisters and I were teenagers, college age, when we were coming to Ocean City," said Justine Bonner, 68, a retired school teacher who lives in Baltimore. "It wasn't much like a vacation; we were earning money."
Pearl Bonner, who died in 2003, was a resolute innkeeper, accepting only male boarders and insisting they return for the night by 2 a.m. Often, her daughters say, she would wait up to see they did.
Melva White Fowler has been a friend of the Bonners since those days, when her father ran a taxi service across the street from the Henry. She, too, worked for tuition money, graduated from Morgan State and has retired to West Ocean City after teaching for 38 years, mostly in Prince George's County.
"Our time, maybe 1955 to '62 or '63, it was like one big family," Fowler said. "Our grandparents or parents would be right there. I worked in the kitchen at the Dunes Club. That's where I learned to cook. We didn't have trouble finding jobs. Spending the summer like that, it was kind of our culture."
For those old enough to remember institutional segregation, the hotel prompts a mix of emotions. Their children have heard their own verbal history.
"I'm 51, too young to have any memory of the Henry" in its heyday, said Worcester County District Judge Gerald V. Purnell, who grew up in nearby Berlin. "But I heard my mother and grandmother talk about it. Most of the boarders then were employees of white hotels. It's one of the last symbols that tell you what segregation was really like at the beach and the rest of the Shore."
Tom Davis is a retired Baltimore City planner who bought a 90th Street condo 12 years ago. Davis volunteers as a board member of Ocean City's downtown development authority. He says he has urged Pearl Bonner's daughters to form a nonprofit corporation or foundation, the easiest route to securing grants to renovate the old building. "It looks as if they're going ahead with a combination bed-and-breakfast and museum," said Davis, 83.
Bonner, Camper and their sister, Carol Bright, 64, say they have had plenty of offers for the Henry over the years. Lately, Trimper's Rides Inc., across the street from the hotel, has considered closing its 117-year-old arcade and amusements operation, a change that would undoubtedly boost the value of the Henry - or at least the land under it.
The sisters say they aren't interested in selling. "It's a part of our mother's legacy," said Bonner. "We don't intend to lose it."
The three other buildings designated as landmarks by the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council and Worcester County tourism officials are the Sturgis One Room School Museum in Pocomoke City, St. James Methodist Episcopal Church in Somerset County and the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center in Salisbury.