Historic American Beach
American Beach holds a unique history for African-Americans. Despite years of decline and overzealous development to the north and south of this historic community many black families still call it home. Many buildings remain vacant, boarded up and vacant lots are commonplace, still other residents have come back to the beach to retire.
Today, American Beach’s long history of celebrating African-American culture is still vibrant for many property owners, preservationists and historians who have united and are dedicated to preserving its rich heritage, the land and the community. American Beach has long been a beloved destination for visitors and residents alike. To further promote the heritage of the beach and reestablish American Beach as a recreational destination, the American Beach Property Owners’ Association, Inc. along with Friends of American Beach, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization has capitalized on the utilization of Burney Park within the American Beach community to host a series of summer jazz festivals to benefit American Beach projects.
The community is in transition. While there are modest and well-kept homes, neglected houses, abandoned buildings and vacant lots it is attracting some new residential construction. Redevelopment is slow due to the lack of infrastructure. The community is also seeing a fair share of new buyers – white and black. The American Beach Property Owners’ Association, Inc. works closely with the Nassau County Board of Commissioners to find ways to provide reliable public water service for potable water, sewage collection and fire protection for the American Beach Community. The Association is also focused on the revitalization of Evans’ Rendezvous, a historical oceanfront restaurant and night club.
The revitalization of this Community is a top priority of the American Beach Property Owners’ Association, Inc. and Friends of American Beach, Inc. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the President of Afro-American Life, ironically named the area American Beach because he and others felt that in the United States beach access should be open to everyone.
Responding to the need for health and burial insurance, A.L. Lewis joined with six other founders to form the Afro-American Industrial and Benefit Association in 1901 at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville. The founders included Reverend J. Milton Waldron, D.D. pastor of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church; Reverend E. J. Gregg, D.D.; E. W. Latson; A. W. Price; James Franklin Valentine; and Dr. Arthur Walls Smith.
Lewis and his partners envisioned a resort that would signify success, self-sufficiency, and respectability for middle-class African American families from Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. In addition to having beach access, the planned community also allowed for the building of resort and retirement homes. Surveyed and platted on March 12, 1936, the original section of the beach property was added to the US National Register of Historic Places on January 28, 2002 as being worthy of historic preservation and marker designation.
Florida’s first black millionaire and largest landowner established a home there and encouraged other blacks to build homes and create the small businesses that they often dreamed of owning. Between the late 1930s and the 1950s, tourists traveled for miles to frequent this black-owned oasis, passing dozens of resorts that were off limits to them, as made evident by the “For Whites Only” signs.
Eventually prominent entertainers made their way to the famous seaside pavilion which, over the years, hosted musicians like Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and Duke Ellington. For nearly three decades, American Beach thrived as an all-black recreational beach resort whose population swelled greatly in the summer months.
Remembering the Beach Lady
Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida, into one of the preeminent black families in the South. Her parents were Mary and John Betsch, and her great-grandparents were Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who founded Florida’s oldest African-American beach, and Mary Kingsley Sammis, the great granddaughter of Zephaniah Kingsley and Anna Kingsley. Betsch was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1955, moved to Europe, where she was an opera singer for ten years.
Since 1975, Betsch dedicated herself to the preservation and protection of American Beach from development and destruction.
MaVynee Betsch died of cancer on September 5, 2005.
She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama on November 12, 2005.
The Amelia Tree Conservancy awarded one of their two special “Voice of the Island Awards” to MaVynee Betsch posthumously for her incredible work in preserving the character and natural wonder of Amelia Island on November 9th, 2017.
Betsch is survived by her sister Johnnetta B. Cole, an anthropologist, and her brother, John Betsch, a jazz musician.
Betsch and American Beach have inspired two women to create documentaries on the subject: An American Beach, which focuses on the history of American Beach, with conversations with The Beach Lady, and The Beach Lady, a feature-length documentary.