Abraham Lincoln Lewis, or A. L. Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and a founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, founded American Beach in 1935, specifically for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” American Beach is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The A.L. Lewis Historical Society welcomes you to “The Sands of Time: An American Beach Story,” their new exhibit in a museum with a tin roof and a long porch lined with rocking chairs.
In 1935, Jim Crow laws undermined blacks with “separate, but equal” dogma. This short-changed people access to places for family recreation, such as Jacksonville Beach and other sites to enjoy the sun, restaurants, and a family swim in the ocean. So, Lewis set out to do something about it. He purchased 200 acres of oceanfront in Nassau County with the intent to have a place where homes could be built for a fair price and families could enjoy the amenities just like the white people in the area. He envisioned churches, a strong black community and children all together–living, vacationing, loving and enjoying the high sand dunes, such as the famous 60-foot dune system and its Nana, the tallest sand dune in Florida. Now, the dune system of nearly 10 acres is a national landmark and part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, which was made possible by the preservation efforts of his great-granddaughter MaVynee Betsch, known as the “American Beach Lady.”
Lewis’ Kin Saves Nana
Singlehandedly, Betsch saved Nana from encroachment by Amelia Island Plantation to build condos on this historical land through her voice in town halls, as well as the Congress of the United States. Betsch graced the opera halls of England, France, and Germany, and lived in American Beach from 1975 until her death in 2005. She was a nature lover, sea turtle protector, and butterfly organization philanthropist who toured thousands of people of all ages and colors around American Beach through the years. Her symbols were many: five-inch fingernails helped her make her specific oratorical points, and her seven feet of hair all grown together with mementoes of people and places got the attention of those she wanted to make sure heard her plea to save American Beach and Nana. After her death, Betsch’s beautiful hair was kept under glass, hanging in all its glory–with shells, pins and other personal memorabilia. You can see it at the newly opened Museum.
Generations in American Beach
A.L. Lewis married Mary Kingsley Sammis, the great granddaughter of Nassau County plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Madgigine Jai, Kingsley’s former slave. Lewis’ three great-grandchildren, Betsch being one, also include Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first female president of Spelman College and Bennett College, and now executive director of The National Museum of African Art, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. Dr. Cole’s brother Johnny Betsch, a world-renowned musician now living in Paris, was also on hand for the museum opening this September. “American Beach means many things to me,” says Johnny Betsch. “To see the love and respect, it was inspirational, phenomenal. It gives a ‘place’ to all of us, a physical place. It makes me feel good that a lot of people put a long time in making this happen; it’s heartwarming–a place of legacy.”
Both Dr. Cole and Mr. Betsch were joined by MaVynee Betsch’s surrogate daughter, Carol Alexander and children, along with her husband, Howard Dotson, Junior. Dotson is an American scholar who is now the director of the Moorland-Spingam Research Center and Howard University Libraries. He was formerly the long-time director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem for more than 25 years. Alexander’s legacy before moving to Washington, DC, to be with Howard, was the development and curation of The Ritz Theatre and Museum.
She says, “It was an honor and privilege to be a part of a creative team of spirited artisans who designed and developed the inaugural exhibition,’Sands of Time’ at the American Beach Museum. The exhibitions’ unique display and storyline gives a insight into the struggle of a people, the joy in their lives and the advocacy and strength of one ‘Beach Lady’.” Ample parking is available, and rental of the community room for 150 can be requested.