It never occurred to Charles Douglass and his wife Laura that the color of their skin may be a factor in why they would be denied the opportunity to enjoy their rights to leisure when they made the decision to travel to the Bay Ridge Resort on the Chesapeake Bay in 1890 to enjoy the sea breeze. The facility’s white majority management barred them from entering.
The Chesapeake Bay served as the centerpiece of the state’s attractions, and Maryland was known for its white, sandy beaches. According to hcctimes.org, because the beaches were divided, African People were only permitted to observe white families swarming to the bay.
After being confronted with this unpleasant truth, Douglass decided to build a seashore where African Americans wouldn’t have to consider their color before entering. Douglass began investing in coastal homes in Anne Arundel County south of Bay Ridge, going against the grain of the white majority.
He began selling the plots to prominent Black people including former Louisiana governor PS Pinchback, congresswoman Blanche K. Brusse, and women’s rights activist Mary Church Terrell once he was able to secure 40 acres of land.
In the neighborhood that became known as Highland Beach, Maryland’s first black municipality, Douglass himself constructed a house for his father that he named Twin Oaks.
Douglass was the beloved son of Frederick Douglass and Anne Murray Douglass, two prominent abolitionists. As his father ran his newspaper, The North Star, they collaborated frequently. Douglass later joined the military after it became an integrated force, becoming the first African American to be enlisted in New York’s army.
During the Civil War, he served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment before volunteering to join the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and rising to the rank of sergeant. He continued serving in the military by enlisting in the DC National Guard and later working as a clerk at the US Treasury Department.
For Douglass, desegregating significant facets of American society was nothing new. As African Americans discovered about his neighborhood, it quickly turned into a shelter for those fleeing racial segregation in the adjacent District of Columbia. After they learned of Douglass’ initiative, several well-known Black people made the decision to buy property in the community. At Highland Beach, people like W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Alex Haley purchased homes.
While Highland Beach expanded to become the first African-American municipality to be established in Maryland, Douglass’ passing did not put an end to its aspirations to become a municipality. Haley Douglass, Douglass’ son, made sure Highland Beach lived up to his father’s ideals. After being elected mayor, he spent the following three decades working to advance the neighborhood.
But, because of its success, Black and White developers were forced to build resorts in the 1940s that catered to affluent African Americans. The popularity of Highland Beach declined as a result of these new resorts, the conclusion of the Civil Rights movement, and segregation.
Yet, Highland Beach is still one of Maryland’s affluent communities today, and a museum and cultural center were constructed there in Frederick Douglass’ honor. Eighty percent of the population is descended from the first settlers.