40 Acres & a Beach: A Kwanzaa Story

‘Twas the weekend before school started and all through the town, The teachers were fretting – it was about to go down! 

Well not me.  I got out of town. Well, actually across town.  To a little city near Annapolis called Highland Beach.  My definition of vacation has expanded greatly during this pandemic.  I used to scoff at staycations and domestic travel.  Now any window with a different view offers respite. Any change of pace or perspective is welcome.  And the less time it takes to get there, the better.  

This is especially true this weekend because school starts on Tuesday, and this is basically my New Year’s Eve. Kwanzaa, the Black holiday I am committed to bring back from 90s purgatory, is typically celebrated between Christmas and New Year’s, so it seems fitting that I am spending this time here in this place because Highland Beach is Kwanzaa Incarnate. If you are looking for the Kwanzaa spirit, it is found right here – all the Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), and Imani (faith) that you could ask for. 

Towns along the Chesapeake Bay are generally delightful, mixing laid back southern easiness with northern aspirations and conveniences.  Waterfront, but crab, not lobster. Don’t forget the Old Bay. 

The Town of Highland Beach is 127 years old and was the first African-American incorporated town in Maryland. It was founded by the third and youngest son of Frederick Douglass and his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass (who was a badass in her own right), a man named Charles Remond Douglass. He was apparently the first African-American man to enlist in the Civil War and then served as a clerk in the Freedman’s Bureau.

The story goes that in 1892, he and his wife, Laura, came to the area and had a well – racist experience. They tried to go to the Bay Ridge Resort and Amusement Park but were sent away. They went for a walk and stumbled across some beach front farm land that was owned by members of the Brashears family, who were also Black. That family had been free and landowning even prior to the Civil War, but since some of the heirs had moved away, they were open to a conversation. Charles and Laura inquired about buying it, and the sale was negotiated. The $1,000 investment was substantial and a bit risky. Their intention was to create a vacation community where Black people could relax and spend time with their families without fear of discrimination. Ultimately they would acquire over 40 acres including a lovely stretch of sand that to this day is the private property of the town. Before Oak Bluffs and the Inkwell, there was Highland Beach.

When I first came here, I was struck by this community’s sense of itself – its history, its purpose, and its legacy. The streets here are named after famous reconstruction era Black people like John Mercer Langston, Blanche K. Bruce, John R. Lynch, P.B.S Pinchback, and Reverend Alexander Wayman. You can still visit “Twin Oaks” the home that was built for Frederick Douglass himself. He died before it was finished and it is now a museum. One can easily envision the man looking across the Bay at the land where he had been enslaved with a “look at me now” smirk. Many illustrious DC families have lived or vacationed here. One notable resident was Dr. Henry McKee Minton, a Black doctor and pharmacist, who co-founded The Boule. Another prominent property owner was Dr. John R. Francis. He was also a physician and owned the first private hospital for people of all races. Booker T. Washington stayed here, as did Paul Laurence Dunbar who in 1901 wrote:

“Here the very best of three cities gathered this summer, Annapolis and Baltimore sent their quota and our own capital city did the rest. It was such a gathering of this race as few outside of our own great family circle have ever seen. There is perhaps, exaltation about any body of men and women who gather to enjoy the fruits of their labor upon the very ground, which their labors have secured to them.  There was, at any rate, a special exaltation about these people, and whatever was done went off with class.”  

Today, people here still stroll and take in bay breezes.  They also joyride around in golf carts, kayak, and bike.  They relax at the end of piers and fish at sunrise and sunset.  They sit on porches, listen to cicadas, and watch the trees move.  They breathe. Freely. And it is a glorious thing to experience. 

A story about a group of Black people purchasing property in Georgia with the intention to build a city recently hit the news, as did the uncovering of the historically Black beginnings of Manhattan Beach in California. While much is made of the Black community’s low net worth due to a lack of generational wealth, we have always tried to own our own stuff. Sometimes it is stolen from us, sometimes a highway is put through it, and sometimes it is burned to the ground.

Sometimes, though, it lasts, and multiple generations of Black people are able to revel in the success of preserving their own joy. When we find these pockets of resistance, it becomes a communal obligation to make sure they last forever.

See you around the Mkeka. 

For more on Maryland’s Black Beaches

For more on Highland Beach

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