American Beach, located on Amelia Island just north of Jacksonville, is not extremely well-known among First Coast residents.
But it has a special place in the heart of many black residents who lived in Jax during the Jim Crow era.
Prior to the major civil rights movements of the 1960s, our city shared an unfortunate history of ignorance and segregation with the rest of the South. Black residents were restricted from the majority of “white-owned” businesses, and forced to use inferior facilities, attend inferior schools, and live in neighborhoods separated from white people.
In addition to these limitations, black residents were refused access to all of Jacksonville’s beaches. That is, until the black community took matters into their own hands.
In the early 1930s, the locally-based Afro-American Life Insurance Company, led by founder and president Abraham Lincoln Lewis, purchased over 30 acres of land on Amelia Island. Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire, intended the land to be used as a leisure spot and meeting place for his employees. Through later purchases, the total span of AALIC’s land on Amelia Island would extend to over 200 acres.
The land would be dubbed American Beach, and officially opened in 1935.
Its goal was to provide for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” The city’s many black residents would finally be able to attend a beach near home without worrying about having to deal with discrimination or being turned away.
Land was initially offered only to AALIC shareholders and executives, but soon its many subdivided lots would be available for purchase to all of Jax’s black community.
Following World War II, a boom in development would lead many of these residents to invest in property at American Beach. In short time, this once undeveloped landscape became the premiere spot for black residents — both in Jacksonville and across the country — wishing to establish vacation homes or go for a weekend getaway at the beach.
Along with the many vacation homes and time-shares, a prominent nightlife and entertainment district was established as well. Prominent performers such as Cab Calloway and Ray Charles were featured at local nightclubs. Hotels and restaurants sprung up around housing developments, and commuter buses often ran to the beach from prominently black neighborhoods in Jacksonville.
The beach would remain a hot spot right up until the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, which would eliminate many racist laws and policies such as the barring of black residents from Jacksonville’s beaches. Coincidentally, that year would also bring Hurricane Dora through the First Coast, causing vast damage throughout the area including the damage or destruction of many buildings in American Beach.
Saddled with the burdens of picking up the pieces after Dora, as well as new competition from the more conveniently located beaches within city limits now open to all, American Beach began to decline in popularity.
The once-popular restaurants, clubs, and hotels all gradually began to close their doors permanently. Property owners sold off their beach houses, and the amount of visitors rapidly decreased.
This could easily have been the end of the story of American Beach if not for the efforts of one woman – MaVynee Betsch, A.L. Lewis’s great-granddaughter. Betsch, known to many as “The Beach Lady,” moved to American Beach and served as an unofficial historian and promoter for the beach. With the help of her sister, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, she established the A.L. Lewis Historical Society as well as the American Beach Museum. As a result of her efforts, the original 33-acre plot of land acquired by Lewis’ company became officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Betsch passed away in 2005.
Only around 100 of the original span of over 200 acres remain untouched by developers today. However, thanks to its museum, its status as a preserved part of U.S. history, and the efforts of Betsch, the land will live on for the foreseeable future.
As long as it does, it will serve as a reminder of the South’s unfortunate history, as well as the strength of one community rallying together to create their own place of leisure.