Highland Beach's centennial at crossroads History of isolation vs. feelings of pride


Highland Beach, a black enclave born of segregation, has thrived in quiet isolation just south of the hustle and bustle of Annapolis. But the hidden legacy of the close-knit community has been both its bane and its saving grace.

It has placed the residents, who are celebrating the town's 100th anniversary, at a crossroads.

On the one hand, they want the outside world to acknowledge and celebrate the rich history of the community where poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, educator Mary Church Terrell, author Langston Hughes and other members of the "talented tenth," or black elite, created a lifestyle that continues today.

"You can go to Annapolis schools, Maryland schools, from kindergarten through grade 12 and never hear one word about Highland Beach," says Raymond Langston, a third-generation resident. "The fact that we're the first black incorporated township [in Maryland] and not mentioned in any textbook is phenomenal. This is a part of our history that has been denied and ignored, and in that order."

On the other hand, residents have an overwhelming desire to hold the outside world at bay.

They complained bitterly last April that their community had been identified in an article about a resident who helps recovering drug addicts that appeared in The Sun for Anne Arundel County.

"There is always that hesitancy when you have that rare jewel," says Quentin Wyatt, who vacations in Highland Beach throughout the year. "Who wants to let the world know about a rare jewel? You don't want to taint something almost perfect."

Since its beginning, Highland Beach has represented a sanctuary for blacks who, despite intellectual and economic achievements, were excluded from many white resorts.

The community was carved from 44 acres of waterfront property by Maj. Charles R. Douglass, a Civil War veteran and the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He and his wife were turned away from nearby Bay Ridge, a popular vacation spot in the summer of 1892, because of their race.

The Brashears, a black family that lived across Blackwalnut Creek from the resort, offered the couple food and lodging and later sold them the land that became Highland Beach. The major subdivided the property and sold the lots to friends, creating a vacation spot for black doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Home for Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass bought a lot from his son in 1893 and began Twin Oaks, a home designed so he could look across the bay to the Eastern Shore where he had once been a slave. The elder Mr. Douglass died in 1895 before the cottage was completed.

Douglass descendants vacationed at Twin Oaks until 1979, then left it vacant and in disrepair for eight years until Annapolis architect Charles Bohl and his wife, Barbara, purchased and restored the home in 1987.

The Bohls, who are white, are among the very few outsiders to buy property recently in Highland Beach. Most homes are passed down through generations of families. The residents saw to that almost from the beginning.

After the death of Major Douglass in 1921, the residents petitioned the Maryland General Assembly to be incorporated. Many were concerned that the property might fall into the hands of commercial developers. The mayor and town commissioners never dictated who could buy property, but they could control what was done with it.

The incorporation helped residents stave off residential, as well as commercial, development. There will be no 7-Elevens in Highland Beach, they insist.

"We're not interested in building a thing," Mr. Langston says. "Most of us have come here to get away from that type of community."

Even residents who no longer spend each weekend at the beach want to protect it.

"We do view the area as a sanctuary," says Joseph Waddy, who visits the town about twice a year. "It is a very closed-off community. That's not to say new people wouldn't be welcomed. But there will be no commercialization, nor massive development."

Ancient oaks still stretch their limbs over streets, just as they did 100 years ago.

The only difference is the streets are paved now, instead of dirt. And they are wide enough for two cars to pass. Not that they need to be that wide. In Highland Beach, a car doesn't come by but once every half-hour or so.

Many of the first homes built there were expansive, with wide porches. Singer-actor Paul Robeson is said to have sung an impromptu concert from one porch one summer evening.

Later cottages were small and simple. But now that more residents are living there year-round, the homes are being expanded and modernized.

While modernization represents some improvement, residents recall the early days, when Highland Beach represented safety in a world that often was anything but safe for blacks.

"This was a place where you didn't have to explain, or watch your emotions," says Mr. Langston, who is 54 and whose family made Highland Beach its primary home in 1989. "It was a place where people like Dr. Charles Drew, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Paul Robeson would sit and talk about what they could do to help the community at large."

Surviving integration

For a brief time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, property owners appeared to lose touch with their community. Integration had been opening the gates of many other resorts to blacks.

Highland Beach didn't seem necessary any more.

But by the end of the 1980s, the vacationers returned. Highland Beach reclaimed its status as a sanctuary.

"When I was growing up, there were a large number of kids in Highland Beach," Mr. Waddy says. "But for several years, there was a period where there were no kids."

Now, he says, the younger generation is returning. And he fully expects his children to vacation at the beach.

"There has been somewhat of a protectionist feeling, and I think rightly so," he says. "I just think that the very private, don't-have-to-lock-your-doors feeling is something to be valued.

"I want my family to reap the benefits of my experience, of the Beach's history."

Mr. Wyatt adds, "I think a lot of people realize that if they sell this property, it may not be the type of property they can gain again. There are not many people who can say they own part of their ancestral roots."

Reverence for people

When they tell the story of their community, Highland Beach residents show a reverence more for the people who came before them than for the place.

"It was just something we saw as tradition, not history," Mr. Langston says. "But then you realize, less than 30 years after slavery there was a group of people who had the means to build a place like this, and the foresight to protect it."

Daniel Nelson, the mayor, who travels from his home in Washington to Highland Beach several days a week, adds, "As a kid it didn't dawn on me what we had here. But when I started thinking about the previous generations, when I started thinking about the history of the Beach, then I started to appreciate what I had."

Mr. Waddy, 36, remembers frequent visits with "old Aunt Fannie" Douglass, a distant relative. But it never registered until much later that she was the granddaughter of Frederick Douglass, he says.

"As a child, I had no interest in the historical value of the Beach," Mr. Waddy says. "As I came of age, it took on greater significance. By and large, professionals used this place as their hideaway. It was Afro-centric in its origins, but it was a topic not discussed or pursued. It was simply a product of the environment. . ."

And the environment, Mr. Waddy says, tended to be elitist.

"If you weren't from D.C., light skin and traveled in that group, then you weren't in," he says. "But slowly, through attrition and evolution, that has changed.

"There are some old-timers who are kicking and screaming all the way to the 20th century. Of course, we're entering into the 21st century."

Mr. Langston insists, however, that the original residents were "not just a group of elite people going out to isolate themselves. These were people who were forced to this place in order to enjoy the type of lifestyle they chose."

In the 1940s and 1950s, fathers would "deposit" their families for the summer and return on weekends, says Mr. Nelson, 59.

"There used to be a hotel down here, and it was like a magnet," Mr. Nelson says. "It attracted people from all over the area. It was not big by today's standards, just a big house really. But everybody came there.

"The hotel is gone, but the beach is the same," he says. "There's still fishing and crabbing, mosquitoes and frogs. When I used to walk down the road, it was just darkness. Now, we have lights. But it's still Highland Beach."

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