Highland Beach eager to share black history

MPT show to air tonight

renovation and expansion of Town Hall planned

February 24, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Highland Beach, believed to be the country's first resort community for African-Americans, has so outgrown its tiny, one-story Town Hall that its records are kept in a bathtub in a back room and spread around town in private homes, and the crowds at summer meetings often overflow outside.

"When we have meetings, we literally have people standing outside the windows, listening in," said Mayor Raymond L. Langston.

At this bay-side community southeast of Annapolis, long since integrated and continuing to change, residents are eager to preserve their past and spread their story.

The community is proposing a $300,000 renovation of Town Hall, which was the home of the town's caretaker and can hold 35 people. Plans call for upgrades and additions to accommodate meetings and provide space for documents.

A documentary on Highland Beach is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. today on Maryland Public Television. The program will include rare home movies of daily life at the summer haven in the 1940s.

"Highland Beach has a history that a lot of people don't know about," said Langston, who has been mayor since 1995. "It's a real credit to the state and county."

Highland Beach was founded in 1893 by Maj. Charles R. Douglass -- son of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass -- and incorporated in 1922. It served as a summer resort on the Chesapeake Bay for prominent black professionals, including poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, writer Langston Hughes and educator Booker T. Washington.

Through the years, descendants of the original homeowners continued to go to Highland Beach for the summer. Most houses have been passed on to family members, and several have been renovated to year-round homes.

"My children are already asking who will get my house," joked Langston, who lives in the home his grandmother, Mary Church Terrell, built at the turn of the century.

About 80 percent of the 90 houses in Highland Beach, Langston said, are owned by descendants of the original founders.

The close-knit community has traditionally kept to itself, mainly because it was founded as a relaxing haven from discrimination and because it was a summer community left unprotected in the off-season months. Langston said houses used to be vandalized but that hasn't happened recently because more than 50 percent of the homes are occupied year-round.

In the past five to six years, Langston said, interest in Highland Beach and its history has increased. School buses from as far as Ohio bring hundreds of children to the community each year to visit Twin Oaks, the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center in the house that was Douglass' summer home. A traveling exhibit goes throughout the state.

To help protect the community's history, Langston said, he wants to renovate the white-and-green Town Hall at Highland Beach's entrance and convert it into a multipurpose meeting hall and museum.

"Many of the town's documents and historical pieces are in people's houses," said Langston, who keeps files, such as treasury reports, on his front porch.

Local state delegates have asked for $150,000 to be matched by the county for renovations to the building. The county delegation has scheduled a hearing on the bill March 3.

Del. Michael E. Busch, who co-sponsored the bill, said Highland Beach has a rich story that should be spread throughout the county and state. "We think it provides a unique look into the African-American community here in Annapolis," Busch said.

Dels. Virginia P. Clagett and C. Richard D'Amato, who, like Busch, are Democrats representing Arundel's District 30, are also sponsors.

Langston said he plans to replace the Town Hall's archaic plumbing and electrical systems and build a second floor and an addition on the back, increasing the capacity from 35 to 180.

The new Town Hall would also house outreach services and programs, a mayor's office and space for visitors to study.

Town Hall and its historic records would tell Highland Beach's story from its inception. "People are anxious to learn about Highland Beach," Langston said.

Twin Oaks would remain the Frederick Douglass Museum.

MPT's 30-minute documentary synthesizes hours of interviews of longtime residents, photographs and video footage. The special, "Highland Beach: A Douglass Legacy," will air again at 6 p.m. Saturday and is part of MPT's recognition of African-American History month and its "Celebrating Our Diversity" initiative.

Relatives of Dr. Miller Dean, who shot daily home movies of summer activities in the 1940s, offered the material to producer Marilyn Phillips. The footage includes children playing on the beach, cars driving by and people going for a swim.

"It's like pure gold," Phillips said. "It was just wonderful stuff."

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