Hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries. The menu, painted on the side of the old snack stand building, which is in a state of disrepair and has not been used for many years, is one of many ghostly reminders of a once thriving African American beach resort called American Beach. Located on the south end of Amelia Island, American Beach is an area full of history. As I stand in front of the old buildings, I can imagine the past coming to life. Children running on the beach, women sipping tea on the ocean decks, and Duke Ellington playing at the nightclub.
In 1935 one of the original founders of the Afro-Amelican Life Insurance Company, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, established American Beach in defiance of Jim Crow laws of that era. Lewis, Florida’s first African American millionairre, touted American Beach as “The Negro Ocean Playground-a place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation”. At the height of popularity, this 216 acre resort had food, lodging, and clubs that hosted some of the biggest African American performers of the time.
In more recent years the size of American Beach has been reduced by half due to development but the heart of the community still remains, although most of the buildings are in disrepair. Preservation efforts were spearheaded by Lewis’ great-granddaughter, MaVynee Oshun Betsch-or as she is more commonly called, The Beach Lady. She is recognized internationally for her environmental efforts. Her work locally led to the preservation of the tallest sand dune in Florida (Nana), located in American Beach, as well as to the historic preservation of the American Beach area. The Beach Lady is a colorful character whose story includes living in a trailer covered in bumper stickers on the beach, 7 foot long dread locks, and an affinity for butterflies and the color orange.
“I want to welcome you to our American Beach Museum. The best place to start on your journey through our past is with a short film about The Beach Lady.” The museum docent led me to the viewing area where I sat down and was quickly entranced by this dramatic, dynamic, other-worldly woman telling the story of the area. She relayed the stories of the buildings, homes, and people that were part of the American Beach history. She lamented The Plantation (Omni) building their “waffle” skyrise condominiums and resort on land that used to be a part of the American Beach. She talked with great love about the nature of the area. This film provided foundation and dimention to the rest of the exibits in the museum. Encased in glass is one of The Beach Lady’s 7 foot dreadlocks which, if nothing else about this area is of interest to you, should be a sole reason to visit. The exibits walk visitors through various eras of the resort community and display some fantastic old artifacts including vintage swim suits and photographs. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend that you stop in as well.
After the museum, I walked the streets of the area that was, in it’s heyday the social heart of the area. Old homes, restaurants, activity center, and nightclub all came to life in my imagination. Since moving here almost 6 years ago, American Beach has held a special place in my heart; full of richness and soul. Many of the old buildings are for sale and I can only hope that someone buys them with the intent of breathing life back into their bones. I see large beach homes popping up around the community and I cannot help buy feel a little sad to see such an important part of Amelia Island history fading away. I would love to see partnerships created that move toward better preservation and restoration of American Beach.
My small blog entry cannot begin to cover the vast history of this African American resort community so I recommend that you do further research on your own. A good place to begin is the American Beach Museum website www.americanbeachmuseum.org. The Amelia Island Museum of History is another resource for information. I hope that you will take the time to educate yourself on the history and plan a visit to American Beach and the museum. Museum hours are Friday and Saturday 10am-2pm and Sunday 2pm-5pm. Entry is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $2 for students.