American Beach: Hanging on to history

“NaNa,” a dune affectionately named by MaVynee Oshun Betsch, is the tallest dune in Florida.

Words and images by Blake Allen

Surrounded by the swanky developments and resorts of Amelia Island is a quiet but once-overwhelmingly popular and buzzing beach.

A few houses—both old and new—abandoned buildings, empty lots and a vacant beach is all that remains today of American Beach. But once it hummed with excitement and activity when it was the the only beach along the First Coast accessible by African-Americans.

“It’s one of those stories that didn’t get told,” said Yuwnus Asami, curator of the American Beach Museum on Amelia Island.

The beach was founded by Jacksonville’s own Afro-American Life Insurance Company, “the Afro,” in 1935. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who went by A.L. Lewis, was then president of the company, and he purchased the land for employee use. Over the next three decades the American Beach would include more than 200 acres of land and become a mecca for vacationing African-Americans.

Despite the name “American Beach,” it was created specifically for African-Americans in a time when such places either didn’t exist, or were few and far in between.

Motels, guest houses, restaurants and nightclubs used to welcome visitors from all over the nation. Not only was the beach a destination for famous African-Americans like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles it was also an African-American community where status and wealth didn’t matter and those who were turned away elsewhere could prosper.

Today, American Beach is hanging on to the memories of yesteryear as luxurious developments surround its original 33 acres, which were placed on the National Register of Historic places in 2002. Besides the American Beach Museum, which is only open Friday through Sunday, there isn’t much to see anymore.

Some of the new additions slowly being built all over American Beach.

But the community is lucky to have this amount of land. Just down the street is the Ritz Carlton, and the Amelia Island Club isn’t far either. Without a certain distinctive character, this land could have become another development.

The preservation of American Beach was spearheaded by MaVynee Oshun Betsch, known by most as “the Beach Lady,” the granddaughter of A.L. Lewis.

Betsch was a unique character, 6-feet tall with 7-foot-long hair. She was an environmentalist, and spiritualist who believed in reincarnation. Her story, and her hair, can be found in the American Beach Museum, which opened in 2014.

The Beach Lady also fought for the preservation of “NaNa,” the 60-foot sand dune she loved so much. After her death in 2005, the Beach Lady’s ashes were spread on NaNa and thrown into the beach’s waters, her two favorite places.

NaNa just so happens to be the tallest such dune in the state of Florida. The dune system and adjoining property to the shoreline is now a national park located in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. A plaque in front of the dune provides information of its history.

It’s the passionate residents and history of American Beach that make it a place worth visiting.

Andrew Collins, resident and property owner on the beach since 2000, says the beach was one of the few places African-Americans were able to party, which makes it special to him. He hopes to eventually pass his land on to his children to keep it in the right hands.

“It’s symbolic of exploitation, but it’s also symbolic of celebration of black culture,” said John Holliday, another resident of American Beach.

Holliday’s father, Horace, moved to American Beach because of what it was, and to teach. He also built some of the homes that still stand on the original 33 acres.

Holliday described the beach as being symbolic of his entire childhood.

Perhaps America Beach’s most-happing stretch of road, Gregg Street, is named after one of the Afro’s founders Reverend E.J. Gregg.

He recalled how the area would resemble a carnival on the weekends. People could take bi-plane rides, little shops would sell ice cream, and cars would cover the sand of the beach.

But despite the fond memories and history of American Beach, some feel the area is in trouble.

“It’s inevitable to be gentrified,” said Holliday. He thinks it’s only a matter of time before the beach’s shorefront property is purchased by outsiders and developed.

Holliday noted how those who inherited property on the beach are rarely present at community meetings, making their voices unheard in important matters.

Collins also thinks that the demographics in the area are changing as non-black outsiders are purchasing more property.

What was once a place where African-Americans could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation,” American Beach is trying to hold on to its proud heritage.

“It means a lot. It gives me a reference point of the type of history that African-Americans created, but not recognized for,” according to Asami.

“American Beach rises from the sand as a testament to the journey from enslavement to freedom,” reads a display in the American Beach Museum. For now, that’s a journey that is still celebrated by the once flourishing community.


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