On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Patricia Taylor insisted on taking her family to Highland Beach, one last time before school started, to picnic on the sandy shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
Taylor, 53, remembers making the trip to that historic African American enclave near Annapolis so many times as a child that she and her siblings occasionally grumbled, “Oh, Lord, do we have to go this weekend?”
These days, however, she longs for more company.
“I just wish more people would come and enjoy it,” she said as she minded hamburgers on a red brick grill on the small beach. “People’s lives are so different now. Everyone is so busy just trying to pay bills. There is no time to sit around anymore.”
For generations, tiny Highland Beach was a summer haven for affluent black Washingtonians seeking refuge from segregation. Now its residents are struggling to maintain its identify while young people with no memory of Jim Crow lose their connection to what made the community so special.
Taylor started going to Highland Beach more than 40 years ago, when her parents bought a house in Venice Beach, a one-street community that borders Highland Beach and shares its past as an escape from segregation’s indignities.
Highland Beach was founded first — in 1893. Charles Douglass, a son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, bought the land from a black farmer after he was turned away from a whites-only resort in neighboring Bay Ridge. Giants of African American intellectual life spent time at Highland Beach, including Paul Robeson, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
For decades, the town had no sewer system and the roads were unpaved. The beach was barely longer than two city blocks. But it offered something no four-star resort could: a vacation from racism.
When Taylor’s mother, a teacher, and her father, a small-business owner, bought the family’s cream-colored Cape Cod on Chesapeake Avenue, they envisioned filling it with children and grandchildren. Taylor, a Prince George’s County property standards inspector who lives in Southern Maryland, still divvies time up at the house with her siblings and cousins.
On that recent Sunday, despite a steady light drizzle, her husband, Frank Taylor, was firmly planted at the end of Highland Beach’s narrow pier, catching perch with his daughter Calandra Taylor, 32. Calandra’s children, who normally spend their weekends back home in Upper Marlboro, playing football or attending dance classes, bounced between a playground and the water until a discovery on the beach sent them running toward their grandmother.
“It’s a fish!” Jada Weems, 7, shrieked.
Over a chorus of “Eews,” Khaleem Washington, 10, produced a dead fish draped on a stick.
“You would pick that up,” Taylor said, her eyes resting on a gaping hole next to the gills. “We’re not cooking that.”
The boy tossed the reject onto the sand. There was no one to complain. The kids had the beach to themselves, which is perhaps the most noticeable difference to old-timers.
Up until the 1970s, it was still possible for a kid to go to Highland Beach on a summer weekend and find a dozen or more friends to ride golf carts and roam the streets. The popularity of Highland Beach ebbed in the years after segregation ended and its denizens became free to go where they wanted. The Fourth of July fireworks and Labor Day festivities were suspended for lack of interest.
But starting in the early 1990s, the generations that grew up boating to the screw-pile lighthouse, netting crabs in Black Walnut Creek and learning to drive for the first time down Highland Beach’s narrow streets came back to retire.
In 2010, the median age of Highland Beach’s 96 full-time residents was 55, according to census data. Year-round residents are now a majority. And the community is slowly growing more integrated, with 19 white and five Hispanic residents making Highland Beach their home.
The once-remote location is surrounded by development on all sides, which is a mixed blessing. Conveniences such as supermarkets and banks are a short drive away. But the beach is a magnet for outsiders. Anyone is allowed to walk onto the beach, but no one can park on the streets. A guard shack by the entrance is manned on weekends to enforce the no-parking rule. In a larger sense, Highland Beach residents are protecting more than the beautiful views of the Bay Bridge.
“There is a sense of guarding the legacy,” said lifelong Highland Beach visitor-turned-resident Craig Herndon, 65, a retired Washington Post photographer. The community “is not dying, but it’s changing into something else.”
Through the decades