In 1890, a beachside resort in Maryland refused to admit Frederick Douglass’ youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass, on account of his race. The rejection came as a shock to Charles, a Civil War veteran and civil servant who’d previously enjoyed wide access to social spaces as an elite member of Washington, D.C.’s Black community. Little did he know that this respectful treatment was coming to an end with the introduction of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation across the American South.
Though enraged when he left the Bay Ridge resort, Charles quickly found a new opportunity to vacation on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. He and his second wife, Laura Douglass, had a chance meeting with the Brashears, a Black family who owned land adjacent to Bay Ridge.
“Thinking about starting his own summer resort so that he would never suffer such an indignity again,” Charles purchased some 40 acres of beachfront property from the Brashears for $5,000 (nearly $170,000 today), writes historian Andrew Kahrl in The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. He divided this tract into 104 lots, which he then sold to friends, family and other Black elite. The resort community of Highland Beach welcomed its first visitors in 1893.
Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places, Highland Beach served as a refuge for some of Washington’s most prominent Black artists, politicians and activists, including poet Langston Hughes and suffragist Mary Church Terrell. To this day, many of the town’s cottages are owned by descendants of the resort’s original denizens.
But most Black Washingtonians never had the chance to visit Highland Beach during the Jim Crow era. At a time of severe restrictions on Black recreation in the nation’s capital, Highland Beach remained reserved for the upper classes, who took decisive steps to bar working-class guests from the resort. Instead, the majority of would-be Highland visitors spent their summer leisure time at other spots on the Chesapeake Bay, such as Carr’s Beach, Sparrow’s Beach and Oyster Harbor. In the decades since desegregation, many of these sites have been radically transformed—or have disappeared altogether.
Highland Beach’s exclusivity reinforced divisions among Washington’s Black residents. Still, as Kahrl tells Smithsonian magazine, the underlying reason for both Highland Beach’s establishment and the emergence of alternative relaxation spots was the city’s failure to invest in “any public beaches, public swimming pools or other outdoor spaces for African Americans.” This situation, in turn, led “families [to seek] out other spaces for their own leisure and entertainment.”
The Black history of the Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a network of over 100,00 rivers and streams spanning six mid-Atlantic states and Washington, D.C. These waterways flow through major cities like Baltimore and Annapolis and include rivers such as the Potomac, the Patuxent and the Susquehanna. Eventually, these rivers empty into the Chesapeake Bay, a brackish body of water between Maryland’s Eastern and Western Shores that opens to the Atlantic Ocean.
Black history on the Chesapeake is as old as the United States itself. In the 17th and 18th centuries, ships carrying enslaved people from West Africa arrived at various ports across western Maryland. These ships also sailed up the Anacostia River through present-day Washington, delivering enslaved people to tobacco plantations. Access to ports along the Potomac River, as well as the growing tobacco industry along the Anacostia, contributed to George Washington’s selection of what is now D.C. as the seat of the federal government in 1790.
In the 19th century, free and enslaved Black Americans alike dominated the region’s water-based industries, in part because they could obtain seamen’s protection certificates that served as proof of citizenship at a time when Black citizenship was subject to debate. By 1880, Black oystermen in one county along the Chesapeake outnumbered white oystermen by a ratio of four to one.
Before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., Black mariners also proved instrumental in helping enslaved Black people escape to freedom. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, for example, worked with Black sailors to ferry fugitives from slavery up the Susquehanna and the Potomac.
The Chesapeake’s waters played a central role in the Douglass family’s history. In 1838, Frederick, who’d spent several years working in Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry as a leased enslaved laborer, disguised himself as a sailor, borrowed a free man’s protection certificate, and rode a series of northbound trains and steamboats to freedom in New York City.
In his 1882 autobiography, Frederick described the moment he presented his borrowed papers to a train conductor during his escape to freedom:
One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other seaports at the time toward “those who go down to the sea in ships.” … I drew from my deep sailor’s pocket my seamen’s protection. … The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business.
In 1872, Frederick, by then an established writer, speaker, civil servant and abolitionist, returned to the Chesapeake region, where he later moved into the Cedar Hill estate in Southeast Washington, less than a mile from the Anacostia River. Around that same time, tens of thousands of poor and working-class Black Americans flocked to Washington, seeking the stability of federal employment and a spot in new housing settlements established by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Between 1860 and 1900, Washington’s Black population increased more than sixfold, from 14,000 to 87,000.
Black beaches during Jim Crow
In the late 19th century, many of the Chesapeake region’s social and leisure activities revolved around rivers. White entrepreneurs refitted cargo ships to offer river excursions, which became a popular form of entertainment for Black churchgoers and members of social clubs, while white land developers like L.J. Woolen converted the landing sites for these steamers into riverfront beaches and resorts, including Collingwood Beach and Notley Hall.
With the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s, however, recreational opportunities for Black Americans began to dwindle. Elite Black Washingtonians were barred from reserving first-class accommodations on steamships and in shorefront businesses, some of which stopped serving Black patrons altogether. The remaining steamboats and beaches were often run by white businessmen who illegally oversold tickets, which led to severe overcrowding and outbreaks of violence.
In response to the clashes, white Washingtonians labeled the popular Notley Hall “Razor Beach” due to “the reported violence and debauchery of its guests,” writes Kahrl for the Journal of American History. Soon, white newspapers started applying the derogatory nickname to all of the region’s Black beaches, reporting on them in lurid, racist stories intended to vindicate segregation.
These largely white-owned enterprises also drew the ire of local Black publications, such as the Washington Bee, which described one popular excursion boat as “run by a company of white men … for the purpose of making money off of the very colored people whom they refuse to rent houses to except in alleys, whom they refuse to employ except in the most menial way and whom they Jim Crow in every way possible.”
Limited leisure opportunities prompted elite Black Washingtonians like the Douglasses to look for vacation spots outside of the city. After Charles Douglass founded Highland Beach in 1893, it was frequented by some of the most celebrated Black Americans of the period, including poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and actor and activist Paul Robeson.
To ensure Highland’s preservation during the Jim Crow era, its owners employed a variety of creative legal strategies. By purchasing the land from a Black family, Charles circumvented racial covenants that prevented landowners from selling property to people of color. After Charles’ death in 1920, his son Haley G. Douglass inherited the beach. Haley incorporated Highland in 1922, making it a self-governing municipality run by an all-volunteer government. Though these measures preserved the community, they also led to accusations that Highland residents misappropriated funds and used scare tactics to keep out trespassers.
Defending Highland’s strict entry requirements, Haley said:
The failure of large cities to provide adequate bathing and recreational facilities has placed upon us the burden of protecting our property from roving trespassers whose ignorance or lack of self-respect permits them uninvited to impose upon residents who bought their homes for the benefit of their own families and friends.
Recreation options for Black urbanites
Highland remained a small, affluent community for much of its existence. In 1922, Osborn T. Taylor purchased the remaining land owned by the Brashear family, just south of Highland, and established Venice Beach as another haven for Black elites. These towns’ exclusivity led to the establishment of other Black beaches on Maryland’s Western Shore. Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach opened more than a mile north of Highland in 1926 and 1931, respectively. Less exclusive than Highland and Venice, they held public concerts featuring performers traveling on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a series of venues that welcomed Black audiences and performers during Jim Crow.
At the same time that Black beaches proliferated on the Western Shore, recreation options became increasingly scarce for the region’s urban poor. In 1918, a white-only swimming beach opened on Washington’s iconic Tidal Basin, serving as many as 20,000 people in one day. Though Congress was scheduled to open a section for Black swimmers, Southern lawmakers subverted this plan by closing the beach altogether in 1925.
One of the only beaches open to Black swimmers in Washington itself was Anacostia Park, a segregated public park that opened in 1918 on the banks of the Anacostia River. Though the park provided a place for Black Washingtonians to swim and picnic, its facilities and play equipment were limited in the Black-only section. Multiple Black children drowned while trying to swim in the river.
Amid growing concerns about pollution and the risk of drowning in the city’s rivers, the D.C. government constructed six public swimming pools in the 1930s. But the only two pools that allowed Black swimmers were located in Northwest Washington, making them difficult for residents of other parts of the city to access. Unable to easily visit these pools, Washingtonians continued to swim in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Between 1945 and 1948, 37 children, 29 of whom were Black, died while trying to “escape the heat by swimming in … unsupervised waters,” as local activist Edwin Bancroft Henderson noted in a letter to the Washington Post.
The federal government integrated Washington’s public pools in 1949. But this push to expand access to swimming spaces was met with forceful opposition: When Black Washingtonians tried to visit Anacostia Pool in June 1949, white pool patrons started harassing them, culminating in an outbreak of violence that shut the pool down for the summer.
Preserving the region’s Black history
The Chesapeake Bay’s Black beaches continued to serve as an oasis throughout the Jim Crow era. YMCA Camp Clarissa Scott, for example, brought young girls to Highland Beach for several weeks in the summer. Rachel Seidman, a curator of women’s environmental history at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, describes the camp as a way for “upper-middle-class Black women” to “get [less privileged] girls out of the city, get some fresh air, and get access to the beach and the water.”
But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black people began visiting desegregated, formerly white-only establishments. Many Black beaches declined in popularity and were eventually bought out by white developers. As Kahrl says, “The few places that do exist now tend to skew toward those more elite, privileged Black spaces, because they had the resources and the ability to protect and preserve their communities in ways that others did not.”
Amid the overall decline of Black beaches, Highland’s ties to its founders—and the wealth of its residents—helped ensure its preservation. Ben Secundy, a lifelong summer resident of Highland Beach, describes the community as a “summer wonderland” where “segregation was not something that the young people talked about.” Born in 1946, Secundy currently works as a docent at the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center, which is housed in the Highland cottage built for the abolitionist by his son Charles.
In the post-Jim Crow era, activists, scholars and cultural heritage organizations have launched a range of campaigns to document the Chesapeake region’s Black historical sites. In 1984, Vincent Leggett founded the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, which preserves artifacts representing local Black Americans’ roles in the maritime and seafood industries. In 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative, which seeks to identify and map Black historical sites to prioritize for land conservation.
Other projects aim to preserve the intangible aspects of the Chesapeake’s Black history. In 2010, the Anacostia Community Museum launched the Urban Waterways program, which explores the Washington community’s connection to the Anacostia River. The project details how pollution and overuse of the Anacostia have impacted local residents and highlights the work of activists working to improve public health by restoring the river.
“There is an ongoing legacy of people loving these places [and] living in these spaces,” says Urban Waterways coordinator Katrina Lashley. “It may not be the traditional view of what environmentalism looks like, but it really is a history of the everyday. … The different ways that people have loved and engaged with these waterways over time needs to be acknowledged.”
Editor's Note, June 7, 2023: Rachel Seidman's quote has been updated.