Douglass cottage seen as ideal site for town archive

March 06, 1995|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

The Highland Beach Historical Commission wants to turn Frederick Douglass' summer cottage on the Chesapeake Bay into an archive for the study of Maryland's first private black town.

But the $600,000 price tag is too steep.

The organization wants the state to put up half. The rest would come from corporate and individual sponsors, foundation grants and, if necessary, loans.

"[The cottage] is the most significant piece of property in our community," said Raymond L. Langston, co-chairman of the organization.

The home is on the National Register of Historic Places. For the people of Highland Beach, a summer retreat about four miles south of Annapolis, buying the cottage this year would be an especially fitting way to commemorate the centennial of Douglass' death.

"It makes a lot of sense to make a transfer of this house to commemorate this," said Charles H. "Chip" Bohl, the architect who restored the cottage.

Mr. Bohl and his wife, Barbara, live in the house. Today, they will meet with state Del. Michael E. Busch, the Annapolis Democrat who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, to find out what it will take to get the state to help finance the historical commission's purchase.

The county's delegation is interested in the project, but it may be too late in the current legislative session to include the necessary financial arrangements in this year's bond bill, Mr. Busch said.

"I think this is a very credible project," he said. "I think we would like to take action on it."

The organization made a similar pitch in 1992. The timing was wrong, however, because the state was then trying to dig itself out of a fiscal hole. The proposal fizzled.

If a bond is issued, the state would insist that the public be allowed to use the house for certain events, Mr. Busch said. Typically, such arrangements provide for opening the home to tours and study. Mr. Langston says that would not be a problem.

"We could meet every condition," he said.

Generally, such bond funds have to be claimed within seven years. The organization involved has two years to show it can meet the terms and raise the matching funds.

Douglass' son, Charles, and daughter-in-law Laura founded Highland Beach in 1893 as a summer sanctuary where African-American families and their friends could gather without fear of racial prejudice.

They bought 44 acres of farmland, with 500 feet of shoreline, from a black family that invited them stay after they were refused service at a nearby Bay Ridge establishment.

"Less than 30 years after slavery, here were African-Americans who had the know-how, the resources and the finances, who had the talent to put together a community," Mr. Langston said.

Highland Beach quickly became a resort for the African-American elite. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar is said to have been inspired to write "Ships That Pass the Night" there. Paul Robeson, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Charles R. Drew, Langston Hughes and others vacationed in the village.

The town was incorporated in 1922. Most of its homes are still owned by descendants of the original owners. Some have turned the homes into year-round residences.

The historical commission would like to see the Douglass cottage become a permanent home for its exhibit, "Highland Beach: The First 100 Years." The exhibit has been touring since 1993 and will open at the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center in Baltimore March 12.

Though the cottage is known as Frederick Douglass' summer home, the abolitionist and statesman never lived there. What makes the home important, according to historians, is that it symbolizes Douglass' desire late in life to return to Maryland. His home in the Anacostia section of Washington has been preserved.

Douglass did help design the summer cottage. He also insisted on its legendary second-floor balcony so that "as a free man, I could look across the bay to the land where I was born a slave." The porch commands a magnificent view of Kent Island and the Eastern Shore.

Oral histories of Highland Beach say Douglass stood on the 6-foot-by-5-foot balcony while the home was being built. He died Feb. 20, 1895, at age 77, before the cottage was finished.

"There is a certain irony over all the fuss over a house he never lived in," said William S. McFeely, a University of Georgia professor of American history and author of a 1991 biography of Douglass.

The irony, he said, is that Maryland is full of places where Frederick Douglass lived and worked, yet there is scant public recognition for these places: his master's house on the Eastern Shore or the Fells Point neighborhood where he toiled and learned to read. Only a visitor who knows where to look can trace Mr. Douglass' life in Maryland.

"Pardon my saying so, but he was probably the most distinguished son Maryland ever had," Mr. McFeely said. "It's very strange that there aren't a lot more memorials to him."

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