When Charles Douglass and his wife Laura decided to visit the Bay Ridge Resort on the Chesapeake Bay in 1890 to enjoy the sea breeze, it did not occur to them that the color of their skin could be a reason they would be restricted to enjoy their rights to leisure. The white majority in charge of the facility denied them entry.
Maryland was noted for its white sandy beaches and the Chesapeake Bay was at the heart of the attractions. African Americans could only watch white families trooping to the bay because they were not allowed to access it since the beaches were segregated, according to hcctimes.org.
When Douglass was hit by this harsh reality, he vowed to create a beachfront where African Americans would not have to question their race when they stepped there. On the blind side of the white majority, Douglass started purchasing properties on the beachfront south of the Bay Ridge in Anne Arundel County.
When he managed to acquire 40 acres of land, he started selling the plots to influential Black figures like Former Louisiana Governor PS Pinchback, Congressman Blanche K. Brusse, and women suffragist Mary Church Terrell. Douglass himself built a home which he named Twin Oaks for his father in the community that became known as Highland Beach, Maryland’s first black municipality.
Douglass was the son of popular abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Anne Murray Douglass. He worked closely with his father when the latter was operating his newspaper, The North Star. Douglass later enlisted in the military when the army was desegregated, becoming the first African American to be recruited into the U.S. army in New York.
He was part of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and volunteered to join the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, becoming a sergeant in the army. His military service did not end there as he joined the DC National Guard and later became a clerk at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Desegregating key aspects of life in the U.S. was not new to Douglass. When many African Americans learned of his community, it became a safe haven for many who were running away from racial segregation in the nearby District of Columbia. Other prominent Black personalities who heard of Douglass’ initiative decided to purchase properties in the municipality. Individuals like W.E.B Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Alex Haley bought properties at Highland Beach.
Douglass’ death did not hold back the dream of Highland Beach becoming a municipality as it grew to become the first African-American incorporated municipality in Maryland. Douglass’ son Haley Douglass ensured that Highland Beach lived up to the dreams of his father. When he came mayor, he used the next three decades to work for the growth of the community.
Its success however compelled Black and White developers to construct resorts in the 1940s targeted at wealthy African Americans. Thanks to these new resorts and the end of the Civil Rights movement and segregation, interest in Highland Beach decreased.
Still, Highland Beach remains one of the rich neighborhoods in Maryland today and has a museum and cultural center built in memory of Frederick Douglass. Eighty percent of the inhabitants are descendants of the earlier occupants.