100 years in Highland Beach


All over Maryland, there are people who grew up in towns that used to be small, sleepy places and rue the loss of the slow pace, the rural feel, the open spaces.

If they know about Highland Beach -- and they probably don't -- they must be envious, for somehow this tiny black community just south of Annapolis has defied change.

Highland Beach's 100th birthday finds the place pretty much the same as it was in 1893, when Maj. Charles R. Douglass, son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, created a resort community for blacks after being turned away from nearby Bay Ridge because of his race.

The streets are paved now instead of dirt, the houses more modern. But the beach is the same. Blackwalnut Creek still teems with fish and mosquitoes, crabs and frogs.

Commercialization and development might as well be hundreds of miles away, instead of sprawling across the rest of Annapolis Neck.

As Highland Beach observes its centennial, the town celebrates a history that includes notable cultural and intellectual figures among its past residents: Douglass, singer-actor Paul Robeson, author Langston Hughes, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The residents of Highland Beach, the state's first black municipality, also mark the end of a century that saw blatant racism give way to integration and radical accomplishments for blacks.

But as much as any of these milestones, residents should be celebrating themselves for managing to keep this "rare jewel," as one vacationer called it, from losing its uniqueness, from being swallowed up by tract housing and convenience stores.

Since 1921, the year Highland Beach was incorporated, residents have shared a clear, common vision of the town as a sanctuary.

They have put up a united front against modern residential and commercial development, carefully passing down their homes through generations of families imbued with the same reverence for the community. They have controlled their own town's destiny.

Some might call Highland Beach residents isolationists. In fact, they're no different than thousands of people in other towns and neighborhoods, who like things the way they are and don't want them to change.

They've just done a better job of making the clock stand still.

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