Museum tells of fight to preserve a beach’s ethnic and ecological heritage

MaVynee Oshun Betsch, who was known in the Jacksonville, Fla., area as “The Beach Lady,” spent the final decades of her life fighting for the piece of property she loved—the stretch of Atlantic front property on Amelia Island known as American Beach. Although Betch died in 2005, in a sense she continues her fight.

Betsch did not live to see the 2014 opening of American Beach Museum, for which she spent years raising funds and spurring interest; however, she is the key figure in a documentary film shown continually at the museum created to tell the story of the resort founded in 1935 by Afro American Insurance Company President A. L. Lewis, Betsch’s great-grandfather.

Living in a small trailer on the beach, Betsch made a full-time calling of battling to preserve the beach’s natural and historic heritage. At a time when Black people were not welcome on many beaches in the United States, especially in the South, Lewis—Florida’s first Black millionaire— created for Black Americans what he called a place for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

Preserving the great sand dune, Nana, is a success story for those who fought to protect American Beach from environmental damage.

Through photographs, artifacts, videography and text that tells the personal stories of those for whom American Beach is a part of family history, the museum intertwines two stories. One is of Black Americans determined to enjoy a middle-class life despite segregation and discrimination. The other is of the struggle to protect a beach from the erosion, wildlife habitat destruction and other damage that may come with development.

During its heyday, when it was known as “The Negro Ocean Playground,” American Beach grew from a popular vacation spot for affluent Black people to a 216-acre community that included restaurants, lodging and many supporting businesses for those who came each summer to relax and socialize. Especially popular was the entertainment provided by some of the nation’s top Black talents, including Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and James Brown. The museum website describes the American Beach of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s as “a place of hope in an era of despair.”

Many of American Beach’s seasonal visitors owned simple beach houses some of which were sold or abandoned as the first generations of owners died or grew too old for the annual summer jaunts. Two events in 1964 hastened American Beach’s decline. One was Hurricane Dora, which caused extensive damage to many buildings on the beach; the other was the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, which opened all of America’s public beaches to Americans of all ethnicities, leading many in a new generation of Black vacationers to visit swankier beach resorts from which they previously had been turned away.

Although more than half of American Beach has been sold to developers Betsch so strongly opposed, she succeeded in assuring the preservation of the 60-foot sand dune, which has been given the name NaNa and referred to on the beach’s website as “a protected, majestic and spiritual presence on American Beach.” Joined by others who called themselves “eco-warriors,” Betch engaged in a crusade that led to the owners, Amelia Island Plantation Co., donating the dune—the tallest in Florida—to National Parks Association.

The surrounding American Beach Historic District is now on the National Register of Historic Places, a recognition Betsch lobbied for for many years.

American Beach Museum stands as Betsch’s other triumph. During the days when she lived in a beach trailer covered with bumper stickers expressing her strong personal and political opinions, Betsch urged influential friends to join her and make sure that the unique bit of American history that unfolded on American Beach was never forgotten.

Her modest lifestyle and eccentric appearance—which included a seven-foot lock of natural gray hair adorned with buttons that, like the bumper stickers, advocated for her favorite causes—belied that fact that she once was a well-educated woman who had been a successful opera singer, performing lead roles with such operatic companies as German State Opera. Her prominent family includes her sister, former Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole.

Visitors to American Beach Museum are urged to start their tours by viewing the documentary film. They are then allowed to explore on their own though museum staff, many of whom are passionate about the American Beach story, are on hand to answer questions.

American Beach Museum is located 1600 Julia St., American Beach. Museum Hours are 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 until 5 p.m. on Sundays.

For more information, visit www.americanbeachmuseum.org or call (904) 510-7036.

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One thought on “Museum tells of fight to preserve a beach’s ethnic and ecological heritage

  • October 31, 2018 at 9:26 am
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    We visited the American Beach Museum with our friends from North Caroline. It is fascinating to see how our society has changed over the decades. I highly recommend a visit to the museum and a drive through the American Beach area.

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