Walk Through History: Students Connect Key Pieces of Maryland’s African-American History through New Heritage Trail

By Maggie Haslam, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
University of Maryland 

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 from the Washington, D.C. grind for almost 100 years, with beachside cottages, fishing spots and a tightknit community that ebbs and flows with the seasons.

But beyond the riverfront views and postcard landscapes surrounding these resort communities lies a significant chapter of the African-American story, a juxtaposition between some of the darkest events in American history and moments of perseverance and redemption. Now, a new heritage trail created by graduate students from Maryland’s Historic Preservation Program is poised to capture the places and moments that have shaped this region and add an important narrative to African-American history.

Working closely with Prince George’s County Department of Planning and community officials from Eagle Harbor, Cedar Haven and the neighboring town of Aquasco, the students developed the tour over 14 weeks in the fall of 2019, a compilation of audio and signage that links 24 significant historical sites on the southern tip of Prince George’s County. The tour idea grew out of an appeal by community leaders for more detailed documentation of the region’s history, and was adopted by the university’s Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability last year as part of an ongoing collaboration with Prince George’s County. At 3.5 miles long, the tour is paced to experience by bike or on foot, and offers a detailed look at the communities’ ties to tobacco and 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,” explains Paula Nasta, a doctoral student who led the project. “We had seen some excellent examples of this at the National Trust Convention in Denver and the students thought it was an excellent way to encapsulate the region’s history.”

The history in this pocket of the county is extensive. Founded in 1670, Aquasco had the largest ratio of enslaved persons per total population 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. Two miles down the road and 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,” explains Eagle Harbor Mayor James Crudup, who first came to Eagle Harbor as a young man in the 1970s and has served as mayor for five terms. “It’s mindboggling that they were able to get it done.”

“Just by working together as a community, they were able to create this place where people could come together,” explains Linda Garoute, Chief Executive Officer of the Cedar Haven Civic Association, who can trace her lineage in the area back two centuries. “It’s not just an important part of African-American history, it’s an important part of American history.”

Eagle Harbor eventually purchased Truman 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.

“It’s the stories surrounding communities like Eagle Harbor that are at risk of being lost,” explains Dennis Pogue, director of Maryland’s historic preservation program. “Projects like this heritage tour help document and preserve its place in history.”

Many of the earlier historical structures have been lost to time and the communities’ seasonal nature. But by piecing together information from resident interviews, county archives, site exploration and historic photographs, the students made a number of discoveries, including the location of an old grist mill owned by George Mason’s son-in-law and that civil rights activist Pauli Murray, who was the first African American woman to become an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, served as a seminarian at St. Phillips church in Aquasco in the 1970s. The tour also includes a school built in 1934 by the Freedman’s Bureau, cemeteries and the sites of some of the first African-American resort hotels along the Patuxent.

“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 first 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.”

The completed heritage tour will be integrated with an oral history project of the region currently being conducted by the county.

“The students’ final product is really impressive and it was clear that they engaged the community,” said Thomas Gross, planner coordinator for Prince George’s County Department of Planning. “It will set up the county for when they are in a position to build down the road.”