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Arts & Culture

Trail Through History

Students Create Heritage Tour Linking African American Past in Southern Prince George's County

By Maggie Haslam

Collage of archival images from Cedar Haven

Images courtesy of University Archives

Early 20th century ads promote Cedar Haven, an African American resort town in southern Prince George's County. School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation students have designed a heritage trail to preserve the history of this and other towns in the area.

It’s called “Paradise on the Patuxent.” Eagle Harbor, the smallest municipality in Maryland and its sister community, Cedar Haven, have offered a resort-style refuge for Washington-area African Americans for almost 100 years. In these tiny, tight-knit communities of beachside cottages, crabbing, summer barbecues and boating ebbs and flows with the seasons. 

But beyond the Patuxent riverfront views and surrounding postcard landscapes lies a significant chapter of black history in Maryland. Now, a new heritage trail created by graduate students from UMD’s Historic Preservation Program aims to capture the places and moments that shaped the region and shed light on its significance in the American story. The project will be honored in March by Maryland’s Sustainable Growth Commission with a Sustainable Growth Challenge Award.  

“There are significant stories surrounding communities like Eagle Harbor that are passed down through generations, but oftentimes aren’t formally documented and are at risk for being lost,” said Dennis Pogue, director of Maryland’s Historic Preservation Program. “Projects like this heritage tour help document and preserve its place in history.”

The tour grew out of an appeal by community leaders for more detailed documentation of the region’s past, and was adopted by the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) program last year as part of an ongoing collaboration with Prince George’s County. During the fall, students worked closely with staff from the county’s Department of Planning and community officials from Eagle Harbor, Cedar Haven and the neighboring town of Aquasco to develop the tour, linking 22 significant historical sites on the county’s southern tip. 

Using information from resident interviews, county archives, site exploration and historic photographs, the students explored significant moments in the region’s history through four overarching themes: tobacco’s role in Reconstruction, education, religion and resort towns. 

“Initially the communities had proposed a linear historical tour, but as the students began their research they started to see these recurring themes,” said Paula Nasta, a doctoral student who led the project. 

A complete overview of signage and audio for the 3.5-mile-long tour, which is paced for bicyclists, is available this week online. The county hopes to integrate the tour with an oral history project of the region currently under way with hopes that it will be budgeted in the future.

The history in this pocket of Prince George’s is deep. Founded in 1670, Aquasco had the state’s highest proportion of enslaved people per capita before the Civil War; one of the trail’s landmark stops, a pre-Civil War tobacco port called Truman Point, is thought to have served as a place where enslaved people were brought into Maryland. A century later came the development of Eagle Harbor and Cedar Haven, the state’s first African American resort towns, established by African-American D.C. residents in the era of Jim Crow. 

“Ninety years ago, black Americans couldn’t go to Chesapeake Beach and other public beaches,” explains Eagle Harbor Mayor James Crudup, who first came to Eagle Harbor as a young man in the 1960s and has served as mayor for five terms. “So, some forward-thinking blacks bought some property here and did their own thing. It’s mind-boggling that they were able to become an incorporated town.”

According to county records, the modest 20- x 100-foot lots in Eagle Harbor, which was founded in 1929, were advertised in Washington, D.C. newspapers like the Washington Tribune and sold to African Americans for under $50. Eagle Harbor’s population has always been small; in 1940, it made national news for a population of 3. Today, it has 65 permanent residents. Eagle Harbor eventually purchased Truman Point and its slave disembarkation point, which Crudup considers a “touching” moment of redemption in the region’s history. “By absorbing Truman Point, I feel it’s come full circle,” he says.

“Just by working together as a community, our ancestors were able to create this place where people could come together,” said Linda Garoute, chief executive officer of the Cedar Haven Civic Association, who can trace her lineage in the area back two centuries. 

Many of the earlier historical structures, including all of the original resort hotels, have been lost to time and the elements. But the students made a number of discoveries through their research, including the location of an old grist mill owned by George Mason’s son-in-law and that civil rights activist Pauli Murray, the first African American woman to become an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, served as a seminarian at St. Philip’s church in Aquasco in the 1970s. The tour also includes a school built in 1934 by the Freedman’s Bureau, cemeteries and Villa DeSales, one of two High Victorian Gothic-style homes in Prince George’s County. 

Historic preservation student Grace Davenport recalled a resident telling her about a stop on the Underground Railroad just northeast of Aquasco’s main street. “According to the story, those escaping slavery had to wait for the tide to be just right before navigating down a creek and then downstream on the Patuxent River,” she said.

“It’s uncovered so much, things we never knew. It’s almost a therapy to people around here,” said Garoute, explaining that generations of families, beginning with those who established Cedar Haven and Eagle Harbor in the 1920s, return season after season. “The student work was a godsend. They really got down to the heart and soul of this place and made our history come alive. It’s expanded our sense of place, and we want other people to experience that too.”

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