Frederick Douglass' 1895 summer home is the heart of Highland Beach.

Houseful of history

August 16, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A second-story porch in the Victorian summer home Frederick Douglass built gave the aging former slave, abolitionist orator, publisher and diplomat a bittersweet vantage point as he gazed across the Chesapeake Bay.

The view from Highland Beach, four miles south of Annapolis, crystallized his crossing-over story of escaping from slavery. It was a tale Douglass told countless times to awed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, stirring anti-slavery sentiments before the Civil War.

"As a free man, I could look across the bay to the [Eastern Shore] land where I was born a slave," Douglass declared while the summer house of his dreams, Twin Oaks, went up in the 1890s.

Today, the summer house - built in what was one of the nation's first vacation resorts for African-Americans - is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center. Yet somehow it has the aura of a country cousin, an overlooked attic of Americana, pinewood ceilings and all.

Still, it remains the heart of Highland Beach, which will celebrate the summer home's 110th birthday in a few weeks.

The event will include a blessing on the house, a dinner dance, a picnic and fundraisers to repair the frail shingle roof and give the three-color Victorian a fresh coat of paint in the original maroon, green and khaki trim.

The town of about 110 residents is responsible for the property's up- keep.

Highland Beach will celebrate another milestone in the fall: the completion of a long-awaited town hall to replace a tiny, one-story cottage that had long served the community.

"The town hall is a state-of-the-art building with a green roof and a rain garden," says Crystal R. Chissell, 43, the town's mayor and an assistant attorney general.

Chissell spent summers at Highland Beach as a child and now lives there year-round. "Something about the spirit draws you in," she says. "It's a naturally beautiful, special place. And if we don't do these things, who else will?"

At the time his summer home was built, Douglass and his wife lived in the Anacostia section of Washington in a large house called Cedar Hill, which is being renovated by the National Park Service.

Douglass was a respected presence in Washington political circles since the Civil War. "I know who you are, Mr. Douglass," Abraham Lincoln said on meeting the abolitionist, whom he consulted about the first black Union regiment during the war.

Founded in 1893

Highland Beach was founded in 1893 after one of Douglass' sons, Charles, and his wife, Laura, were refused food service at Bay Ridge, an all-white summer resort in Anne Arundel County. A Civil War veteran, Charles Douglass then bought 44 acres by Black Walnut Creek from a black farmer, carved the land into lots and sold them to friends and family members.

Nearly 30 years later, Highland Beach was incorporated, and the younger Douglass' vision of a thriving summer enclave for blacks - educators, authors, poets, doctors - came true. Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar were among the luminaries who owned homes or paid visits to the summer society.

Last week, James Henderson, a professor of plant physiology from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama - founded by Washington - celebrated his 88th birthday in Highland Beach with his family in a large house they have owned for generations.

Henderson laughs on his porch as he retells a familiar tale: that his property was originally intended for Frederick Douglass - who decided the stream in front might be dangerous for his young grandchildren.

For years, though, Highland Beach summer residents had to pack supplies for their entire stay, because they didn't go to surrounding areas while state residents lived under Jim Crow laws.

"They would bring everything they needed, and they didn't venture far," says Elizabeth Jean West Langston, who directs the museum, living next door and showing it by appointment. "They had their own chickens, gardens and fruit trees. If they went to church, they weren't welcome, except up on the balcony."

Langston says the Douglass family and friends broke through an enormous barrier.

"Just 30 years after slavery, it was rare for colored people to have a second house," says Langston, a retired high school guidance counselor whose husband, Raymond, served for years as the town's mayor.

Simple summer cottages and bungalows, a beach pavilion, seersucker suits, water wells, black-eyed Susans, fireflies in jars, wind-up gramophone music, wooden ice chests - all are described in Adele Logan Alexander's 1999 memoir, Homelands and Waterways, which recalls summers past in Highland Beach.

"They wanted to develop an enclave where family and friends could spend precious vacation time without fear of embarrassment or rejection based on race," Alexander wrote.

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