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

July 08, 1993|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Staff Writer

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.

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