By Bruce Stambaugh
In the United States, February has been designated as Black History Month for many years now. Some schools, libraries, and other institutions give the theme only cursory attention while others plan meaningful and memorable events, including art shows, lectures, and dramas.
When my wife and I discovered Amelia Island’s American Beach on one of our Florida snowbird retreats, our interest piqued. We quickly learned a lot about decades of injustices, discrimination, and intolerance of blacks in our society.
The American Beach Museum is a tidy, organized, and informative exhibition hall on Julia Street in a secluded historic district on the south end of this Atlantic Coast barrier island. The place may be tiny, but it is packed with facts, stories, relics, and photos that make your head spin trying to absorb it all. The volunteer guides are the most gracious people one would ever want to meet, and gladly help explain and amplify the historical information.
The short video featuring the Beach Lady, MaVynee Betsch, is the highlight of the tour. It makes you want to have been on that tour bus with her to hear her passionate stories of experiencing racism, discrimination, personal career success, her genuine love of nature, history, family, and the Creator who gave us the responsibility for caring for this marvelous earth.
In her case, the Beach Lady cut short a lucrative and professionally successful career as an opera singer in Europe to return to her beloved American Beach to ensure its preservation. She had her ups and downs in that endeavor. In the end, the Beach Lady’s efforts prevailed, even years after her death from cancer.
For her persistence and persuasive hard work, MaVynee left her mark everywhere around American Beach. The beach itself is the most obvious result. Its sand dunes are some of the highest in the state. The beach’s sands are white and smooth, much desired by island developers. However, due much in part to the Beach Lady, the National Park Service now supervises the 80 some acres of the area.
American Beach was the only one on which blacks were permitted on Amelia Island. That segregation lasted until 1970. American Beach was founded in 1935 by the Afro American Insurance Co. president A. L. Lewis, the Beach Lady’s grandfather. American Beach provided a place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation during the Jim Crow era. It offered a place of hope in a time of despair for dark-skinned people.
Ironically, the original 100 by 100 ft. plots of land were always integrated. Some of the original buildings still exist, though they are not in the best condition. Evan’s Hall, a gathering place for music and dance, is one of them. Today some of the beachfront houses are worth millions of dollars.
The museum holds photographs, artifacts, and displays of the legacy of the Beach Lady, including her seven-foot length of hair. Some thought her eccentric. Others knew better. Her devotion to family, nature, and her beloved beach remains for all to see today.
Each winter, we always make a point of visiting the museum and American Beach itself. We do so as a personal reminder of segregation in this country, of those who worked so diligently to overcome it and the sacrifices they made in doing so. MaVynee, the museum, and American Beach are testaments to what was, is, and yet needs to be done to indeed guarantee equality for all in this great country of ours.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2018