A century after the death of Frederick Douglass, county and state officials are trying to turn his dream house on the Chesapeake Bay into an archive for Maryland's first black town and a tribute to the famous abolitionist.
"This will be one of the first monuments to Frederick Douglass in the state," said Raymond L. Langston, Highland Beach mayor and co-chairman of Highland Beach Historical Commission. "It is very significant that here you have one of Maryland's famous sons."
The town would own and maintain the cottage, and the Historical Commission would manage it. The commission most likely would operate a museum, cultural center and library there.
Anne Arundel County is budgeting a total of $275,000 this year and next for buying the house. The state will match that amount. State and county Program Open Space funds that can be used to buy property and parkland of cultural or historical significance will be used, said Tom Donlin, deputy director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is reviewing appraisals of the property, and the government still has to negotiate a price with the owners, Program Open Space officials said.
Final approval must come from the state Board of Public Works.
"We are hoping this can be done some time in January," said H. Grant Dehart, chief of DNR's open space program.
That would culminate four years of work by Highland Beach, a waterfront haven four miles south of Annapolis.
"It's like a dream come true," Mr. Langston said. "We have been working on this thing so long."
The archive would house rare photographs of the Douglass family and photos and information about prominent blacks, such as writer Langston Hughes, actor and singer Paul Robeson, Washington Judge Robert Terrell and educator and author Booker T. Washington, who visited or lived in Highland Beach.
Immediately after Charles H. Bohl, a restoration architect, and his wife, Barbara, bought the house for $70,000 in 1986, the first-floor porch roof caved in. They spent about 18 months and $100,000 renovating the house, now on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been on the market at times in recent years, at an asking price of about $600,000.
The Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation will give the house the Orlando Rideout Prize for exceptional renovation this week, said Donna Hole, the organization's chairwoman.
Douglass never lived in the house that sits on a knoll where Blackwalnut Creek winds into the Chesapeake Bay. He died shortly before it was finished, but helped design it. He insisted on its second-floor balcony so that "as a free man, I could look across the bay to the land where I was born a slave."
"It was almost a statement of triumph," said Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture. "It reveals the perspective may have had. It does indicate his desire to return to Maryland. It begins to speak of reconciliation."
Dr. Sharps said Douglass spent most of his life away from Maryland after escaping from slavery, living in the North and traveling extensively. He tried to return to Maryland but received death threats, Dr. Sharps said.
"In a way, the house itself completes his cycle of life," Dr. Sharps said. "He was born on one shore, and he died building his last home here in Maryland on the opposite shore."
It also shows two facets of Douglass often ignored, he said.
"Ideologically, he was an integrationist," Dr. Sharps said. "But his feeling seemed to have been that until racism is eradicated, he would still want to support black institutions, and Highland Beach was an all-black community."
He said Douglass believed that an important economic element for blacks in the decades after the Civil War was to become property owners. Douglass owned rental houses in Washington, Dr. Sharps said.
The only other places marking Douglass in Maryland are plaques at the Talbot County plantation where he was born into slavery in 1817 and at Fells Point in Baltimore, where he worked the docks and learned to read.
"Pardon my saying so, but I think it is a disgrace. When you think of how states fuss over their native sons -- and here you have Frederick Douglass," said William S. McFeely, professor of American history at the University of Georgia and author of a 1991 biography of Douglass. "Name me a Marylander who is more distinguished than he."
Of the move to preserve the Douglass house, Dr. McFeely said, (( "I really think it is quite significant. The reason it really is a very good thing indeed is Highland Beach itself."