Considering the size of this tiny town (year-round population 15), there is something remarkable about how far and wide its reputation has spread.
Just mention the words "Highland Beach" at any gathering of black professionals in Washington or Baltimore and eyebrows go up in admiration. "The Beach," as it is called, is well-known as an exclusive Chesapeake Bay resort - the resort that wealthy blacks established in the late 19th century, when the neighboring white resorts shut them out.
The town also has another distinction: it is Maryland's smallest municipality. It 1922, summer residents formally incorporated the town, hoping that a municipal charter would help them preserve the community they had established.
What they are preserving is the measured, ordered way of life that has grow up in this Anne Arundel County community. Nestled on a remote finger of land jutting into Chesapeake Bay five miles south of Annapolis, the town has only two main streets and no public buildings.
As the seasons come and go, as work weeks turn into weekends and then back into work weeks, the population shrinks and swells, Each summer, more than 200 residents come back to the town's 57 homes - which, no matter how spacious, are all called "cottages" in the way of most resort communities.
The town has no police force, and if one of the 11 local ordinances, such as a leash law, is broken, friends diplomatically enforce the rules on other friends.
For the oldest generation in their 70s and 80s, part of Highland Beach's appeal is its exclusivity.Homes are passed through generations of families or sold among friends. Lately, when one lot marketed at public sale was purchased by a white realtor, a few residents had worries.
"We're not snobs," said Phyllis Langston, a full-time resident, whose father, Judge Robert Terrell, was the first black municipal judge in Washington, and whose mother, Mary Church Terrell, was a renowned civil rights leader. "But then, nobody would sell to the garbage man."
John S. Brown, the Washington architect who serves as Highland Beach's expatriate mayor, did not put his feelings into quite the same words. Brown, who lives in Northwest Washington nine months of the year and commutes to "The Beach" in the summer, considers the resort a precious symbol of black heritage.
"Conditions in the country are different now than when Highland Beach was established," he said. "Now we are especially concerned with hanging onto and preserving this piece of our history."
In 1893, Maj. Charles Douglass, son of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, founded the community after he and his wife were denied entrance at Bay Ridge, a commercial white resort half a mile up the bay.
Undaunted by the racial slap, the younger Douglass bought a 40-acre farm next to Bay Ridge and sold lots to his friends for summer homes. Frederick Douglass built a rambling Victorian frame residence there, and one of his descendants, who is in her 90s, spends the summers in the "cottage." Men like poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington were summer visitors at "The Beach."
But as the bay shores became more popular for summer outings by Washington and Baltimore families, Highland Beach residents decided in 1922 to incorporate to keep the community "free from the dangers, evils and burdens liable" to result from "its becoming an open public resort," according to the town charter.
Eaver since, the "no trespassing" signs that exist at the entrance of many private Anne Arundel shoreline communities have stood on the stone gates of Highland Beach.
"It was like a retreat when Washington was 'racially conscious,' you might say," said Eunice M.Matthews, a former mayor, who began going there as a child.
A rarefied ambiance surrounds the homes - some of which were built from reclaimed timbers of a failed white resort hotel. At least one ornamental interior was copied from a movie set, and enclosed louvered porches and hoary vine-covered trees grace nearly every lot.
"People at a certain level of living and intellect went to 'The Beach,'" said Matthews, wife of Washington physicial LeCount R. Matthews, as she sat amid Chinese decor of her Northwest Washington home. "It has made those of us who've come after them very clannish about our community."
Yet, because of its charter, Highland Beach is more than a getaway for the affluent. With taxes to collect, roads to maintain, lights to pay for and other governmental business to conduct, it functions like a miniature city.
The residents even treat their elected leaders with the due dignity of the office, and address their mayor as "mayor." Monthly during summers and on other occasions when necessary, Brown and four other unpaid commissioners meet in residences to govern.
Each commissioner constitutes a committee for such public concerns as erosion control and environment, and collectively they administer a $17,000 budget raised from property taxes (at $1.70 per $100 assessed valuation).
The town was incorporated by the state legislature when Maryland counties did not offer public services they provide today. Now, as powerful units within the layers of state government, counties are reluctant to share powers with new municipal corporations. No charters have been approved since 1954. The law also has changed to require a minimum population of 300 before a community can incorporate.