Travel

Wading Through History At American Beach, Florida's First Black Beach Resort

This tiny island community is preserving an important piece of Black history.

Photo courtesy of American Beach Museum, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

“Recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” That was the slogan Abraham Lincoln Lewis gave to his self-proclaimed American Beach, after he purchased 200 acres of seashore along Florida’s northeastern coast in 1935. 

The first person in his family to be born after the abolishment of slavery, A. L. Lewis worked his way up from humble beginnings to help found and serve as President of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company -- eventually becoming Florida’s first Black millionaire. 

With Jim Crow laws severely limiting recreational activities for Black people, Lewis dreamt of a resort community by the sea where Black Southerners could experience the leisure and luxury so often denied to them.

In 1926, Lewis founded the Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville, the first Black country club in the area. But it was American Beach, on the then-undeveloped Amelia Island, that truly brought his dream to fruition. Hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs sprang up along the shoreline, and for the next thirty years, the American Beach tagline held true.

The scene at American Beach circa 1937 | Courtesy of the American Beach Museum

On weekends, American Beach would crowd with up to 10,000 beachgoers, many of them bussing in from neighboring states. Celebrities like Zora Neale Hurston, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Ossie Davis, and Sherman Hemsley were frequently seen sauntering down the strip. Before he became the King of Soul, James Brown was once famously turned away from the local nightclub, Evan’s Rendezvous.

“It was a place of family and gathering,” says Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Lewis’ great-granddaughter. “Almost every street was named after our relatives and our business family from the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. It was also the home of my extended family of heritage -- Black people. Because we witnessed that, we grew up with a strong sense of our worth, and the worth of African American people.”

Opened in 1948, Evans’s Rendezvous was a popular hangout for drinks and live entertainment. | Courtesy of the American Beach Museum

Deeply impacted by the values of her great-grandfather, Dr. Cole went on to have a prestigious career, serving as President of two historically Black women’s colleges. Currently she’s President of the National Council of Negro Women, a post she feels is “divine intervention” given her family history. 

“Fa Fa, as we called him, was genuine, close friends with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935,” Dr. Cole revealed. “Dr. Bethune was also a board member of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. When Fa Fa passed away in 1947, Dr. Bethune gave the eulogy at his services.”

Even after Lewis’ death, the resort community he built continued to thrive. But the tides shifted in 1964, when Hurricane Dora descended upon American Beach. Before it could fully recover from the damage, the Civil Rights Act desegregated the South. Regular visitors from years past now opted for more convenient coasts closer to home. And like so many Black historical landmarks, the strand of American Beach began to shrink as hotel and resort developers turned their money and attention elsewhere.

It’s a miracle that American Beach managed to survive at all. But over the last few years, the area has experienced its own renaissance -- in large part due to the efforts of A. L. Lewis’ other great-granddaughter and Dr. Cole’s sister, the late MaVynee Oshun Betsch, known to locals as “The Beach Lady.”

MaVynee Oshun Betsch, also known as "The Beach Lady," was the great-granddaughter of American Beach founder A.L. Lewis | Courtesy of the American Beach Museum

“She had the magic,” said Carol Alexander, Executive Director of the American Beach Museum, reflecting on her close friend known as “The Beach Lady.”

“After touring Europe as an opera singer, MaVynee came back to Florida in the 70’s to care for her grandfather. She donated her inheritance to environmental causes and decided to stay in American Beach. More than anything, she wanted the entire world to know about American Beach.”

The Beach Lady chose to live outside among the rolling dunes, which tower at 60 feet and are the tallest in Florida. (The majestic dune system was named “Nana” in her honor, after she worked to secure its donation to the National Park Service.) In photos, Betsch emits a certain Rastafarian regality, standing out with dignified cheekbones, flowing kaftans, and seven feet of dreadlocked hair.

Before the American Beach Museum and Community Center opened in 2014, Betsch collected magazines, newspapers, books, and historical relics about the area, her great-grandfather, his Afro-American Life Insurance company, and her siblings. She kept her archives in a motorhome.

Betsch preserved historical relics of American Beach in a motorhome and gave tours to curious visitors. | Courtesy of the American Beach Museum

“She called it ‘Revolutionary Headquarters,’” Alexander told me. “She would attract tourists and busses would come from all over and go straight to her motorhome. She would give people tours of the streets and tell them the history of who the streets were named after. That was the first museum, even though she didn’t call it that.” 

Betsch eventually did lead the campaign for a permanent American Beach Museum. According to Alexander, “She petitioned the county, who knew her by first and last name as she was already attending every county meeting. She pushed and pushed until it happened.”

MaVynee Oshun Betsch passed away in 2005, at the age of 75. Today, when tourists visit the American Beach Museum, they’re greeted by Betsch’s soulful soprano, which plays on repeat in the background. Even Betsch’s dreadlocked hair is on display in the museum, at her request.

This year for Juneteenth, young surfers gathered at American Beach to honor its history | SurfearNegra

This is the legacy bringing young Black Floridians back to American Beach. As they learn what this community represented to their ancestors, many are trying to reclaim this connection. 

That was the purpose behind the Juneteenth celebration that Deyona Burton and GiGi Lucas held at American Beach earlier this year. Burton is the founder of SPEAR (Showing Political Engagement and Responsibility) while Lucas is the founder of SurfearNegra, which seeks to diversify the sport of surfing.

Though 17-year-old Burton grew up nearby, it was her first time visiting American Beach. “My mom had told me about it before, but I’d never been. To be there and have an event that was focused on diversifying the beach and African American history was just a really cool experience.”

For those who stroll the sandy shore here, they speak of a certain spirit or energy that still clings to its shores. Lucas, who has surfed waves all over the world, said she’s never experienced anything like it. 

“The minute you walk on the beach it is a very different feeling from any beach I’ve ever been on,” she recounted. “You can feel the history. You can feel the trauma of what happened, but you can also feel the celebration of what happened.”

Alexander describes it similarly: “You can feel the spirits of the original sojourners who came in 1935, the ones who had that determination to rise above those waves. You feel that and you also feel the spirit of The Beach Lady because she is there.”

Perhaps it’s these lingering spirits that make Amelia Island residents so protective over American Beach. Though there are modern homes on the strip, most residents try to honor the architectural style of the original, still-standing homes, and the local owners association makes an effort to find buyers who have history in the area.

“If I have anything to do with it, I’m going to make sure that people remember the forefathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers who walked these sacred sands of American Beach,” says Alexander. “A. L. Lewis named it American Beach because as he said, ‘We are as American as anyone else.’”

Danielle Dorsey is a Southern California writer who covers travel, culture, and current events, with an emphasis on the contributions of the African Diaspora. Her work appears in Lonely Planet, Culture Trip, Essence, Zora Magazine, LAist, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram and browse her writing portfolio at DanielleDorky.com.