Phyllis Langston can sit on her screened front porch and watch the house that was once occupied by abolitionist Frederick Douglass' son crumbling before her eyes.

The building, Twin Oaks, was built for the elder Douglass, although he died before it was completed. His descendants lived there for years and still own it, but its porches are sagging and its paint is long faded.

For Langston, 87, the deterioration of the house, which commands a choice beachfront vista like her own, is one of many signs of change in Highland Beach, an insular black resort community that has thrived since 1893 on this stretch of the Chesapeake Bay, just south of Annapolis.

Langston's home, built from the timbers of a failed hotel, has stood at Highland Beach since 1896, when her mother, Mary Church Terrell, bought the land. Terrell, who died in 1954 at 90, was an ardent supporter of civil rights and women's equality and was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass.

Change has come to Highland Beach, but the presence of lifelong residents like Langston is testimony to the strength and staying power of a black community that built and maintained its own resort when its members were not allowed to purchase elsewhere.

"The Beach," as its residents refer to it, has been the summer refuge of Washington's black intelligentsia since the turn of the century.

The collection of visitors and homeowners over the years has included Terrell and her husband Robert, a D.C. municipal court judge appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt; educator Booker T. Washington; poets Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and generations of Douglasses.

Frederick Douglass' son Charles purchased the 40-acre farm that became Highland Beach in 1893 for about $25 an acre after he and his wife Laura were denied service in a restaurant in the same Bay Ridge hotel that was later to provide the lumber for the Terrell home.

"He bought it for his friends so that colored people in his day would have someplace to go and not have to be embarrassed by being refused," said Langston. "Being that they were Douglass' friends, I would say they were upper middle class -- doctors, lawyers and teachers galore."

There are 57 homes here now, and residents say that the 16 original cottages, as they are called, are still owned by the descendants of the original settlers.

All are nestled closely together on a point of land that can only be reached by driving through one entrance that is manned by a security guard.

"When we were youngsters, the environment was a much more segregated one," said Charlene Drew Jarvis, a member of the D.C. City Council whose family owns a house there. "The beach was really a haven for us."

Segregation's fostering of the exclusive resort, she said, allowed for a "high density of very talented people all in the same spot."

For Jarvis, childhood days at the beach meant time spent with her father, Dr. Charles Drew, a renowned surgeon who died when she was 8 years old.

Most of those who return to Highland Beach during the summer now are older. Many have raised their children in the close-knit community of beachgoers who live both here and in Washington.

Reminiscing on porches and stopping to chat on country lanes, they share a wealth of oral history.

"We have traveled everywhere -- put our feet in the Mediterranean -- and those rocky shores cannot compare to the sandy soil here," said Betty Henderson, 68, a retired college professor who met her husband James, also 68, at the beach when they were children.

The Hendersons now live most of the year in Alabama, where he is a biology professor at Tuskegee Institute.

Integration, James Henderson agreed, has changed Highland Beach because many offspring of the families that returned year after year now can afford to travel anywhere they wish for vacations and are not prevented from doing so.

Still, he said, allegiance to the community endures.

"They feel that's where their roots are, that's where their families are," Henderson said.

The beach has gained a reputation over the years as an enclave open to only a certain strata of Washington society.

But residents there say their society is not like the exclusive moneyed cliques found in more luxurious resorts such as Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod or Sag Harbor in New York.

"It's not snobbish," James Henderson said. "But we have tried to keep it private."

Margo Dean Pinson, whose parents still spend their summers at the beach, lives in Chevy Chase now and remembers fondly her teen-age years when she and her friend Charlene Drew lived for the beach.

"There was no place else to go," she said. "If you weren't at Highland Beach on the Fourth of July and Labor Day, you might as well be dead."

The snob label, she added, was never an issue for them. "We tend to feel that what's upper class in the white world is struggling middle class in the black world," she said.

"Next door was Bay Ridge, which is far wealthier than Highland Beach ever was," she said.

The town was incorporated in 1922 and is one of only two such municipalities in Anne Arundel County. The other is Annapolis.

Chester Pearson, 67, a retired Army chief warrant officer who occupies a small cottage with his wife on Walnut Drive, serves as one of the town's five commissioners and its mayor. There is an election every other year and a candidate needs only five signatures on a petition to be eligible to seek office.

Every other year, he said, current and former residents of the beach are invited to return for a community reunion. Last year, 1,000 people came.

Someday that interest may wane, notes Phyllis Langston. "The old people have died off and there's not enough excitement for the young people," she said. "People in their 30s or younger, there's nothing for them to do."

But Elise Martin, president of the citizens' associaton, believes that what was special about Highland Beach from the very beginning survives still.

"There are many social values that were here when we came and they're still here," she said.

Town leaders, Pearson and Martin say, don't want to see change come to what they like best about their community. No condominiums; no commercial establishments; no weekly rentals.

The relative safety of the community, along with prevailing quiet and the fragrant salt air provide a welcome change from a summer in the city.

And, increasingly, people live at the beach year-round.

It remains a refuge for people like 71-year-old Elizabeth Waddy, who said she has been coming to the beach for "many a day."

"It's a place where you can enjoy peace and quiet," she said.