On January 2, 1902, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., signed three IOUs for $15 each to Gertrude Smith, a teacher in the Washington public school system.
I promise to pay to Gertrude F. Smith the sum of Fifteen Dollars with interest at the rate of 6 per centum per annum until paid; said interest paid at maturity of note.
IOU to Gertrude F. Smith, January 2, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
One note was due in 13 months, another at 14 months and the third at 15 months. Paul did not meet these repayment deadlines, but all three notes are marked "Paid March 16, 1904." Written in the margin is "Highland Beach" and "Lot 4," referring to a real estate purchase that Paul made. Highland Beach, Maryland, was a summer vacation resort for African Americans on the Chesapeake Bay. It was developed by Charles Douglass, the youngest son of Frederick Douglass. In an essay in The Saturday Evening Post, Paul wrote favorably about the community.
It is true that there are hotels and boarding-houses at many summer resorts and that some of our people gather there to enjoy themselves, but for the first time there was a general flocking to one place taken up entirely and almost owned by ourselves. The place, a stretch of beach nearly two miles long with good bathing facilities, and with a forest behind it, has been made and built up entirely by Negro capital. Two men, at least, have made fortunes out of the sale and improvement of their property, and they, along with many others, are the owners of their own summer homes and cottages at Arundel-on-the Bay and Highland Beach, Maryland.
Here the very best of three cities gathered this last summer. Annapolis and Baltimore sent their quota and our own capital city did the rest. It was such a gathering of this race as few outside of our own great family circle have ever seen. There was a dance at least once a week at one or another of the cottages. Cards, music and sailing parties helped to pass the time, which went all too swiftly. The talk was bright and the intercourse easy and pleasant.
"Negro Society in Washington," by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). December 14, 1901. Page 18.
The Dunbars knew the Douglass family well. Amelia Douglass, who was married to Lewis (the oldest son of Frederick Douglass), wrote letters to Paul's mother Matilda describing enjoyable summers at Highland Beach.
We are very pleasantly situated and having a delightfully quiet time. With boating, bathing, croquet and music the days are well filled. We are trying to learn to swim and float. Lewis has been in the water twice and he had a good ducking the second time he was out. He was in a row boat and in getting out went heels over head into the water.
Amelia Douglass to Matilda Dunbar, July 13, 1899. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
We reached this beautiful spot last Thursday. Yesterday was delightful, and the night was an ideal one for sleeping. Mrs. Charles Douglass has invited about 75 people to come down here on the 4th of July for a basket picnic. If the day should be pleasant, no doubt quite a party will come. It is very quiet here. Lewis bought a rowboat yesterday. He says he never owned a horse and this is his first boat and he will soon be 60 years old.
Amelia Douglass to Matilda Dunbar, July 1, 1900. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
Less than a month after signing the IOUs to Gertrude Smith, Paul and his wife Alice separated permanently. For the rest of his life, she ignored his attempts to contact her, including an urgent request to sign a document related to the Highland Beach property. Paul described his frustration to his mother Matilda.
I telegraphed Alice from Boston, I wrote her from Boston, I wrote from New York, sent two telegrams from here. No answer. Then we wired a friend to ask her if she would see me at the Wilmington station. Her reply was "no." She is the cruelest brute that God ever made and I hope never to make another advance to her. I have wasted my time and money to no avail. The paper which she promised to sign she is holding without a word and we have only one more day in which to save my Highland Beach lot.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Matilda Dunbar, May 24, 1903. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
After Paul and Alice separated in 1902, Matilda became despondent. She didn't want to go to Highland Beach that summer because Alice wouldn't be there.
Oh, Alice you don't know how I miss you. This condition of things grieves me. Paul promised me I could go to Highland Beach this summer, but it wouldn't be like it has been, so I don't know whether I shall go or not.
Matilda Dunbar to Alice Moore Dunbar, July 13, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).
It seems since you have left Washington that you have gone so far away that I will never see you again. I am miserable. My heart is broken! I have had one or two outings this season which I enjoyed for a little while. But neither of these is Highland Beach. I could have gone, but I did not want to be there without you.
Matilda Dunbar to Alice Moore Dunbar, September 12, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).
The Highland Beach property was listed in Paul's will among his real estate holdings. After his death in 1906, Matilda took possession of the property and continued to pay taxes on it for many years.
At the present time, my estate consists of the following realty, to wit: one lot, 50 by 150, located at Highland Beach, Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Last Will and Testament of Paul Laurence Dunbar, August 12, 1903. Montgomery County Probate Court Will, Volume 33, Pages 43 - 47. Montgomery County, Ohio, Records Center and Archives.
Tax Levy, 1917
Matilda J. Dunbar
To County Commissioners of Anne Arundel County
Tax Levy from Anne Arundel County, 1917. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).