AMERICAN BEACH – MaVynee Betsch came from money, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw her. She spent the last part of her life camping out in abandoned houses. Her hair was longer than she was tall. She carried it around in a bundle on her arm, stuck with buttons promoting peace and environmental causes. She was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. In the 1930s, he used his money to start American Beach. Once upon a time, here in the South, it was illegal for black people to swim at white beaches, so they needed one of their own.
MaVynee’s family has deep roots in this area. She was a 7th generation descendent of Anna Kingsley, a Wolof woman who married the man who bought her as a slave in Cuba. He freed her and her children. In Spanish Florida, she was able to keep her own household and run her own business – Kingsley Plantation, just a few miles down the road from American Beach. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage to work cotton fields. They were among the first to settle this part of Florida.
Anna’s decedents built a resort town where black people could relax. They didn’t have to work in the kitchens or valet to smell the salt air. Three clubs operated, even a backyard casino or two. African American celebrities visited, and legendary musicians played music to dancing crowds that stretched all the way back to the highway. Restaurants served fresh seafood and young couples went dancing. People came from all over.
MaVynee was an opera singer in Europe. After a pilgrimage to Africa, she decided to give up her wealth and dedicate her life to causes. Her main cause, as legislated Jim Crow came to an end, was preserving American Beach.
The sands here are nice. The water is blue and inviting. The beach is wide, the breeze perfect. This part of North Florida is rich in natural beauty. It’s no surprise that one of the more upscale resorts in the US – Amelia Island Plantation – decided to plant itself here. Since the arrival of the resort, American Beach was beset on all sides by developers. MaVynee wanted to save it.
In her struggle, she saw success. American Beach is now a designated U.S. historical district. Official plaques tell its history. Documentaries were made, books written, and the section of A1A that runs by American Beach (0.3 miles) is named “MaVynee ‘The Beach Lady’ Betsch Highway” in honor of her commitment.
Leroy stands under a tree to get away from the sun. He is in front of a weathered blue house that has been in his family since the 1930s. His family were some of the first to buy here. His great-grandfather was Louis Ervin, Vice President of the Afro American Life Insurance Company. Leroy says he is recovering from cancer and the salt air and sunshine is good for his health.
He tells me that after drugs came in from Miami in the 80’s, the police set up checkpoints around American Beach. Leroy disagrees with the sign just a few yards away from his house, stating that things started to go downhill in the 1960s, after Hurricane Dora and integration. Leroy says that people started to stay away after heavy police presence became common on the weekends.
Workers are busy restoring a beach access in the hot sun just down the road. Across the street, contractors are restoring a house. What does Leroy think American Beach will look like in 50 years?
“That’s hard to say. That’s very hard. It’s a pity see, because we done held on to our house, but nobody on this line has been here 30 years but us.”
“Everybody done sold out, or the kids got it and sold the property.”
“I see it kinda dissolving, you know, like I talked to one guy and he said: ‘Ain’t gonna ever prevent progress.’ So, you know – way they’re buying up Florida, this like one of the last frontiers of Florida. American Beach.”
“It’s a whole different scenario now. Basically, this beach was built with Black money. And now we having people here that’s working for big corporations – it’s not totally Black money – it’s like Black and White money.”
“We bought all the land, you know what I mean? And we didn’t try and buy a piece and build a big house, we bought all the land and we tried to share it.”
“I have one of those Afro [American Life Insurance] employment books, and if you worked for the company, you had a chance at getting beach property. And that’s better than a lot of jobs now! You know what I mean? A lot of jobs! Even when I started working, I said well, they got real good benefits, you know, ‘cuz most jobs won’t go as far as that. Nowadays it’s really bad. They give you a 401k. You know, I feel sorry for my kids. ‘Cuz they have to go through — I don’t know what.”
“They build new houses, but they build them just like the old houses. Eventually I guess we’re gonna have new houses down here and then everybody’s gonna be like ‘It doesn’t look historical.’ You know what I mean?”
He explains that the Afro-American Life Insurance Company went out of business after integration. They just couldn’t compete with better-funded, white-owned insurance companies. Even though the company is long gone and times are tougher financially, he won’t give up on the house.
“‘Cuz if you sell, you can’t get another house on the beach. You can believe that. So, we’re not trading it. We struggle sometimes to keep it, ‘cuz they’re building all these million dollar houses around it, and our taxes are steady going up, and it’s hard to keep up.”
Where does he think Black money is going nowadays?
“Back to y’all! Back to y’all. We don’t have too many business no more. And that’s why I say that. We get our little money and we have to go to y’all to get our things.”
MaVynee used to take people through the woods across the highway, through the Spanish moss and into a clearing. There, gravestones emerged above weeds growing waist-high. This is my family, she’d say. Franklintown Cemetery, where formerly-enslaved Africans and their decedents are buried.
In the 1990s, a subdivision called Plantation Pointe was build around the graveyard, right up to the stones. A chainlink fence divided it from adjacent properties that sell for a half-million dollars. You used to be able to go visit, despite the glares from those mowing their lawns just a few feet away. Now, the cemetery is hidden from the public behind a locked gate.
There’s a sign with a number to call for more information on the graveyard. The call goes straight to voicemail, and the message I left about how to visit the graves has still not been answered.
The signs at Kingsley Plantation now refer to the workers who lived and died there as enslaved people instead of slaves. The historical brochures and walking tour guides have been rewritten to focus on the horrors of slavery instead of Zephaniah Kingsley. The highway has been renamed next to American Beach, and the area itself – though empty of its former glory – is now a protected historical site. Yet, workers still toil under the hot sun picking cotton for slave wages. The boarded-up houses in American Beach have owners who are unwilling to sell, but are still empty.
I’m sitting in the car taking notes after photographing one of these houses. A middle-aged white man comes up to the window and waves to get my attention. I roll it down to see what he wants. He asks if the property I was photographing is mine. He’s looking for a piece of land to buy around here. He says he has a place across the highway, but wants something closer to the beach.
For more information on American Beach:
An American Beach for African Americans by Marsha Dean Phelts