Historic haven enters new era

All-year residents alter agenda at traditional black resort town

Mayor seeks upgrades

August 08, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Starting more than a century ago, at a time of segregated beaches, the picturesque community of Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay has been a summer haven for prominent African-Americans.

During the past 20 years, though, what began as the country's first black resort town has gradually turned into a mostly year-round community with residents looking for more than sun, waterfront cookouts and dances on hot summer nights.

That means the mayor of the municipality has a lot more to do.

And that's why newly re-elected Highland Beach Mayor Raymond L. Langston emphasized at his swearing-in last week that, in addition to preserving and publicizing the town's history, as he had in the past, he intends to aggressively lobby state and Anne Arundel County officials for money to upgrade town facilities.

Langston, 60, a soft-spoken retired pharmaceutical company manager, has been mayor since 1995.

"We need to begin to look at and deal with issues that have to be dealt with on a year-round basis, as opposed to just during the summer," Langston said. He threw out many phrases not commonly associated with summer fun -- like "public works projects" and "storm water management."

"Because of the fact that Highland Beach is a source of pride for the state as well as the county and this community, we hope [state and county officials] have a vested interest in seeing that we keep this history alive," Langston said.

Haven grew out of snub

The story of Highland Beach began in 1892, when Maj. Charles R. Douglass -- the son of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass -- and his wife, Laura, were turned away from Bay Ridge, an all-white waterfront resort in Anne Arundel County.

Undeterred, the Douglasses ventured across Black Walnut Creek onto the property of black farmer Daniel Brashears, who welcomed them.

The next year, Brashears sold Douglass 44 acres that Douglass carved into lots and sold to friends and family, creating a bayside resort for black professionals that was incorporated in 1922. He named it Highland Beach because he said the land is higher than either side of the beach. Luminaries such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, writer Langston Hughes and educator Booker T. Washington bought summer homes.

So did doctors, lawyers, educators and businessmen from East Coast cities. Families handed down their properties through generations.

Descendants of the original families own 90 percent of the 100 homes in Highland Beach today, and 52 percent of the homes are occupied year-round. The community also includes a handful of white families.

All-year residency rises

James Peck, Maryland Municipal League director of research, said residents began living full-time in Highland Beach in 1950. The census logged five year-round residents that year.

The figure rose to eight in 1980, then to 102 in 1990. Peck estimates 106 people live year-round in Highland Beach today. Langston attributes the population growth to the decision of many homeowners to retire to their summer homes and to the community's increasing attraction to young professionals.

"This place is strategically located," Langston said. "It's off the beaten track but you're still close enough to places that you need to go, like Washington and Baltimore."

Revived interest

Langston sees a renewed interest among the younger set in Highland Beach.

"In the old days, you pretty much were forced to stay here to get away from degradation and segregation," said Langston, who lives in the home his grandmother, Washington educator Mary Church Terrell, built at the turn of the century.

"When desegregation happened, you could take a plane, bus or train anywhere and our children wanted to explore other things. They said, `Why do we have to go to the beach again?' But now they've come around," he said.

The growth has made Langston's job more complicated. Washingtonian Garey Browne, 62, was mayor of Highland Beach from 1978 to 1980 and said his budget was about $30,000. Langston manages an annual budget of $130,000 and has to juggle increased county and state interest in the municipality as the spotlight on its heritage has heightened in recent years.

Plans for the town

Langston is counting on pride and interest in Highland Beach to raise $250,000 to revamp the Town Hall, which holds 35 people and has become too small for meetings. The tiny green-and-white building, little more than a shack, was the home of the community's caretaker when the resort was founded. Langston wants room for children's and seniors' activities.

He also wants to improve the storm water drainage system, repair the narrow streets that replaced the dirt roads in the 1970s, curb erosion of the 800-foot beach and work with county police to stop burglaries that have hit the town in recent months.

And he wants to raise enough to store together all the town's records, now scattered in residents' homes and two storage places in Crownsville and Annapolis.

All are big changes in a community where Langston whirs through the streets on a golf cart, calling out greetings, a neighborhood intimate enough that everybody knows each neighbor and their children -- and also their parents and grandparents -- by name and occupation.

For all the changes he is pushing for, Langston, known in Highland Beach as much for being his grandmother's descendant as for his accomplishments, is determined to bring Highland Beach into the new millennium with that same ambience.

"When I was a child, coming here was like leaving and going to a different world," he said. "You can just see the peace and tranquillity of this place. This is just precious."

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