Monday, September 8, 2014

On September 6, 2014, the American Beach Museum officially opened its doors. The project has been a long time in the making - the brain child of the late MaVynee Betsch (a.k.a. The Beach Lady), opera singer, environmentalist and local historian. She passed away in 2005 before she could make her dream of a museum a reality.

Ribbon cutting at the Grand Opening of the American Beach Museum.
Mavynee was the great-grandaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the first African-American millionaire in Florida. He helped found the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1901 and was also involved in local politics, education and more. In 1935, he purchased 200 acres along the Atlantic Coastline on Amelia Island to found American Beach - one of the only black beach communities in its time.

National Park Service sign about the area, sign located near Na Na.

American Beach was a happening place through the 1950s. The list of famous African-Americas who visited the area is quite long: Zora Neale Hurston, Ray Charles, James Brown and lots more! After hurricane Dora destroyed many homes in the area, and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act which desegregated the state's beaches (both in 1964), the community began to fall from popularity.

Looking back even further into Mavynee's family, you learn that Abraham married the granddaughter of Zephaniah and Anna (Check out a family tree - and some interesting ethnography here). For more information on Zephaniah and Anna, check out some of our other blog posts about Kingsley Plantation.

MaVynee carried all of this wonderful history around with her. She lead tours of American Beach and used her own home - a small beachside trailer - as the first incarnation of the museum. She spoke about saving the history of American Beach and its wonderful environment. She fought for one of the largest dunes in Florida, which she named "Na Na," and it is now under the protection of the National Park Service.
The 60' dune system, named NaNa, is now part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

To read more about American Beach - and the Kingsleys, check out this article from the National Park Service, with interviews with MaVynee and her sister, Dr. Johnette Cole (as well as some descendants of Kingsley's sister!).

And be sure to stop by the new American Beach Museum Friday-Saturday from 10-2 or Sunday 1-5, located at 1600 Julia St., American Beach.

Words and images by Emily Jane Murray, FPAN staff.

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