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Haven for history in Highland Beach


A century ago, Highland Beach offered African-Americans a refuge not only from the sweltering summer heat of the cities, but also from the racism of Anne Arundel County's white beaches.

Charles R. Douglass, the youngest son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, founded the resort community four miles south of Annapolis. Over the years, Highland Beach's distinguished visitors have included educator Booker T. Washington, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and author Alex Haley.

Today, town residents want to preserve their history by establishing a local museum. The logical place for it, they say, is a two-story house known as the Frederick Douglass Cottage. The house was designed as a summer home for the great orator, but he died a few months before its completion.

The house has been beautifully restored by Annapolis architect Charles Bohl, who has been trying to sell the property for several years. The timing for the museum would seem to be perfect.

The problem is Highland Beach doesn't have the money to buy it.

The town's Historic Commission is now asking the General Assembly to approve a bond of $300,000 -- half the price Mr. Bohl is asking. The commission says it will raise the rest from private and corporate donors.

Highland Beach's request, however, is premature. Before the state can help, the town first must demonstrate an ability and willingness to raise matching funds. So far, Highland Beach has gathered only a few pledges of support, not enough to make a persuasive case that it can gather the rest.

Another problem is Mr. Bohl's asking price. The $600,000 he wants is more than twice the property's appraised value.

Although state assessors don't consider historic significance when determining a property's market value, the state ought to carefully consider whether the property is worth what Mr. Bohl is seeking.

In any case, it almost certainly is too late to secure funding from this session of the General Assembly. If Highland Beach decides to ask for money again next year, it needs to be better prepared.

In the coming months, the town will need to form an entity that will own and operate the museum, and then line up serious financial commitments.

Highland Beach's history is worthy of a museum, but the town must first have a plan to make it happen.

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