Black resort displays its past

Highland Beach's Civil War ancestry

February 14, 1999|By TANOAH MORGAN | TANOAH MORGAN,SUN STAFF

Highland Beach was not a Civil War battleground, but the Chesapeake Bay resort town just southeast of Annapolis -- the first in the United States for blacks -- in itself is a monument to the freedom blacks fought for in the war.

Today, in the pine-paneled rooms that escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass designed for his relaxation, residents of the historic and exclusive black community will celebrate their ancestors' place in Civil War and black history with a new exhibit.

"Highland Beach's Civil War Connection" traces some residents' family history to Union soldiers and war recruiters.

"People who were helpful to the development of Highland Beach were involved in the Civil War," said Jean Langston, director of the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center, Frederick Douglass' restored summer home.

"They didn't just come here and stay among themselves," echoed her husband Raymond Langston, the town's mayor. "They went out of this community, and every human being in this community also played a bigger role in society."

The exhibit displays brief histories, photographs and letters about Douglass and John Mercer Langston, both of whom recruited black soldiers to join the Union Army, and Douglass' two sons, Lewis and Charles, both of whom fought in the war.

John Mercer Langston, a distant relative of Raymond Langston, became Virginia's first black congressman during Reconstruction, and Charles Douglass founded Highland Beach.

A historic re-enactor is to portray Charles Douglass at the ceremony and champagne reception today.

County Executive Janet S. Owens is to attend the opening of the exhibit from noon to 3 p.m. at the museum on Wayman Avenue. She will bring a letter written by Frederick Douglass in 1867. The letter was donated anonymously to the county last week.

The letter, which shows Douglass was piqued at having been shorted in pay, is worth about $5,000.

"I have duly received the P.O. order for fifty dollars and though it is but the half of the terms accepted you may rely upon my coming," the world-famous orator wrote before describing his travel arrangements to Portsmouth, Va. "While [I] admire the ability with which you urge upon me the duty of making sacrifices I hardly think the occasion called for it."

Owens' spokesman, Andrew C. Carpenter, said the executive will form a committee to include Raymond Langston and volunteers from the Banneker Douglass Museum and the Highland Beach museum to decide where the letter will be displayed.

Highland Beach was founded in 1893 by Charles Douglass after he and his wife were denied entrance to nearby Bay Ridge, an all-white resort, a year earlier.

The Brashears, a black family that lived across Blackwalnut Creek from the resort, offered the couple food and lodging that year and later sold them the land that became Highland Beach.

Douglass subdivided the 44 acres and sold lots to friends, creating a vacation spot for black professionals.

In a letter to his father that is in the exhibit, Charles writes that he named the community Highland Beach "because the land at that point is higher than either side of the beach."

Charles built two houses, his own and a two-story cottage that his father designed with a second-floor balcony that commands a magnificent view of Kent Island and the Eastern Shore.

The elder Douglass, who escaped from a Caroline County plantation at the age of 20, insisted on the balcony "so that I as a free man could look across the Bay to the Eastern Shore where I was born a slave." Frederick Douglass died in 1895, before the cottage was completed. Residents incorporated the town in 1922, making Highland Beach Maryland's oldest black municipality. Most of its homes are still owned by descendants of the original owners. Some have turned the homes into year-round residences.

In 1995, the state and county spent $600,000 to buy the Frederick Douglass house from Charles Bohl, an Annapolis architect who refurbished it in the late 1980s, entered the house on the National Register of Historic Places and turned it into a museum.

Now, residents say, they have a way they can share their history.

"You see Frederick's influence on his children, you see his children's influence on society," said Langston, the mayor.

The beach's residents "were people who made a contribution above and beyond what history has taught us. The only way this town is going to continue is that we instill in the generations behind us the history and pride of what they're inheriting."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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