The tranquil American Beach breeze blows into Marsha Dean Phelts’ front lawn. It rattles the blue bottles stacked along a palm tree. Phelts says the beach is much quieter now than it was in its heyday. She recalls a time when, she says, “There was always a party going on. American Beach was a place everybody could enjoy and feel a sense of belonging.”
For as long as she can remember, Marsha Dean Phelts has vacationed at American Beach on Amelia Island. Until the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964, North Florida’s beaches were segregated. American Beach was the among the largest and most frequented black-only beaches during the Jim Crow era. Today, Phelts is proud to call the National Register-listed area home.
The author of An American Beach for African Americans has been an American Beach resident for nearly 30 years. Yet Phelts didn’t discover her urge to write until 1990, when she wanted to learn the exact date of American Beach’s establishment. When she asked the question, though, she received various indefinite answers. She conducted research at the library, where she still couldn’t locate an exact date. That’s when Phelts decided to take matters into her own hands. “I didn’t start out to be a writer,” she says. “I just had to answer some questions.”
“I want to pass it on. I want to have a generation who doesn’t know this be able to see what made us tick.”
Still, the accidental writer enjoys the hard work. She’s found that the writing and research processes have brought her closer to those in her community. “I got to intimately talk with people who opened up and poured out their passion in life,” says Phelts. Today, Phelts has amassed pieces of American Beach’s history in her home. At 73, her writing process varies day to day, but she’s a constant collector of ideas on scraps of paper. She does most of her writing at night. Along with her history book, the University Press of Florida also published Phelts’ American Beach-inspired cookbook. She considers the cookbook—a compilation of 300 recipes passed down through generations—an additional history-based text. “American Beach was party central,” she says. “The food and the libations were what made it. I wanted to preserve this part of the history. It’s something to pass on.”
“I am just so passionate about these things,” Phelts says of American Beach’s rich history. “I want to pass it on. I want to have a generation who doesn’t know this be able to see what made us tick.” Phelts also released a limited-edition text on the homes of American Beach. Lately, she’s been writing about the history of Jacksonville’s Sugar Hill area. She hopes to have this book, illustrated by watercolor artist Frank Carstarphen, available by December.