Chesapeake Quarterly
A New Day on the Bay
Preston Johnson - by Jack Greer

All smiles, reunion organizer Preston Johnson directs out-of-town guests toward Mayo Beach. For Johnson and the large Copeland clan, this area is new territory, a great place to gather, swim, and fry up some fresh-caught fish. Credit: Jack Greer.

ON A BRIGHT MORNING IN MID-JULY, Preston­ Johnson stands at the turnoff for Honey­suckle Road, where signage is scarce, except for the uninviting "Dead End." Crape myrtle blossoms nod with wind in a nearby yard, and sunshine bounces between puffy gray-and-white clouds. Johnson has taped a white banner to his red SUV, and he's drawn arrows pointing right down that dead-end road.

One car after another pulls up and stops. Johnson's dark reflection melts away as windows roll down and smiling faces beam out. "Hey, Preston," they say. Or, "Hey, family."

One young woman brakes in front of him, cuts her eyes, and says with a taunting smile, "Hi, Little Preston."

Johnson, over six feet, with big hands and broad shoulders, smiles back. "Welcome," he grins. "You found it."

He waves her down the road, and her shiny Honda sedan follows the others toward the dead end that is Mayo Beach.

The wind blows out of the south and brings an Atlantic breeze barreling up the Bay. Crisp waves fold onto white sand. In the distance a sailboat works its way out of the West River. Here it feels all open air and sunshine. It feels like beach.

Today this thin stretch of sand and the grassy park behind it are the site of the Copeland family reunion. For the casual visitor the official signs guarding the park look off-putting, warning "By Permit Only." But for those who have rented the park for the day, it's a welcoming place.

The Copeland family would not always have been welcome here.

Before the late 1960s, it was not just the sand that was white on many of the Bay's commercial beaches. African Americans were not allowed, nor were Jews. It was a longstanding practice. In the late 1800s, the owners of the beach at Bay Ridge turned away the son of famous orator Frederick Douglass because of his race. A determined man like his father, Charles Douglass walked a little farther south and bought a piece of property from an African American farmer. The shoreline there became Highland Beach — a beach enjoyed by African Americans for decades, including such famous lights as Langston Hughes and Alex Haley.


Highland Beach, south of Annapolis, was a summer resort for African Americans during the era of segregation. Charles Douglass (inset photo), son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, founded Highland Beach Photographs Courtesy of the Highland Beach Historical Commission/Raymond Langston/Arcadia Publishing.

Especially below the Mason-Dixon line, beaches, like so many other public spaces, were separate, even if not equal.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act, the law that made it illegal to exclude patrons on the basis of race, creed, or color. Some beach owners vowed to close rather than integrate.

One era of the Bay beaches came to an end. But on this sunny Saturday in July, the news is anything but sad to Preston Johnson.

"I don't know much about this area," Johnson admits. "We drove up from North Carolina." He says that every year the large Copeland clan picks a different place to stage their reunion.

Preston says he and his extended family are loving their stay in Chesapeake Country. "Last night we went fishing out of that place near here . . . Chesapeake Beach. And we caught a cooler full of fish. Mostly spot. We've got them all cleaned up and today we're having a fish fry."

Another car pulls up. Another smiling face. More family. The Copeland clan. Once through the opened gate, people climb out, stretch their legs, reach for the blue-and-gray sky.

It's going to be a beautiful day.

For more about the history of Highland Beach, visit the town’s web site at

August 2009
vol. 8, no. 3
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