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Tide turns for debilitated beach popular during segregation days

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2005

AMERICAN BEACH, Fla. -- What you see on this half-mile strip of sand these days isn't much (though that is about to change). But standing at the corner of Lewis and Gregg streets, with the Atlantic Ocean a few yards away, you can imagine the crowds and merrymaking as hundreds of African-American vacationers congregated here summers and weekends in the 1930s, '40s, and into the '70s.

Amelia Island's American Beach, about 40 miles north of Jacksonville and a 20-minute drive south from Fernandina Beach, was founded in 1935, when blacks in the South (as in much of the country) were excluded by segregation from beaches used by whites. While well-to-do African-Americans in the North were flocking to Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, in the South they were coming here. American Beach was developed by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who started as a laborer and ended up in 1901 as a cofounder and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in Jacksonville, the state's first insurance company. Lewis, who became Florida's first black millionaire, sold reasonably priced lots to his employees so they would have a beach to enjoy.

If you have trouble imagining such a heyday, the ''Beach Lady" will be glad to assist in the visualization. MaVynee Betsch is the one-woman bridge between American Beach's past and future. With her festive garments, oversize jewelry, and 7-foot dreadlock draped over her arm like a boa, Betsch reminds one of a female George Clinton from Parliament Funkadelic. She punctuates most of her sentences with ''darling," and might tell you how her long nails ''are curved like the vines in the rain forest." She's eccentric, well read, and outspoken. She's also a former professional opera singer who said she gave away her family fortune to save the beach that her great-grandfather started. (Her sister is Johnnetta Betsch Cole, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., and former president of Spelman College in Atlanta.) Betsch, a self-proclaimed free spirit, feminist, and environmentalist, courts and gets media attention and by all accounts is credited with single-handedly saving American Beach.

You can call and make an appointment for a walking tour with Betsch or take the chance you will probably run into her near Lewis and Gregg. She will take you by some of the remaining cottages that once filled the 212 acres (now reduced to about 100). These were homes to both everyday folk and vacationers such as writer Zora Neale Hurston, boxer Joe Louis, bandleader Cab Calloway, and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. She will point out the commercial strip. It looks more like a war zone now, but it used to hold shops, a restaurant, and the Rendezvous nightclub, where the likes of Ray Charles and Duke Ellington performed. You'll also see ''Nana," the 60-foot sand dune that dominates the town and was part of a huge parcel sold to Amelia Island Plantation in the '90s. (The resort preserved it.)

In 1964, two things happened: Hurricane Dora hit, damaging homes and businesses, including the Rendezvous, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, declaring racial discrimination in public places illegal. Then the developers arrived.

''They're about to eat us up," Betsch said of the many resorts now surrounding the beach. Of developers and Nassau County she said, ''They've tried every trick to get us out of here." The John Sayles movie ''Sunshine State," which pitted black folks against developers, was largely inspired by American Beach, where it was filmed, and by nearby Fernandina Beach.

In 2002, American Beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it looks more decayed than historic. About 75 homes are occupied in warm weather and about 25 year-round. Only a ragtag handmade sign announces the beach to visitors.

But a sea change lies ahead, and much, if not all of it, was initiated by Betsch. Amelia Island Plantation donated the dune Nana as a park. In October, a portion of the beach became part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and county commissioners voted to acquire three oceanfront properties, including the Rendezvous, for use as a public park. The county also is building a community center that will house an American Beach museum, to be run by the A.L. Lewis Society.

So things are looking up here for African-American history and for Betsch, who this year shares a 70th birthday with her beloved beach.

''It's not going to be the good old days, because we have integration," Betsch said. ''And the beach has evolved. It has a spiritual side. It's a place for people to meditate. For me it's taken on a wider significance."

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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