I finally got a chance to visit American Beach, where I channeled my inner Zora Neale Hurston and soaked up all of the beauty.
American beach is located north of Jacksonville, Florida on Amelia Island. It was founded in 1935 by Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and his insurance company. Lewis was the owner of Afro-American Life Insurance Company and he envisioned a place for his employees to vacation and own homes on the beach. At the time of its founding, African-Americans could not enjoy beaches due to segregation and Jim Crow. American Beach was created in defiance of the status quo. It was a place where African-Americans could enjoy “Recreation and Relaxation Without Humiliation.” It included hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, homes and businesses. As tourism grew the beach known as “The Negro Ocean Playground.”
American Beach played host to numerous celebrities during this period, including: Zora Neale Hurston, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Hank Aaron and Ozzie Davis.
In 1964, American Beach was hit by Hurricane Dora, and many homes and buildings were destroyed. The passage of the Civil Rights Act that same year desegregated the beaches of Florida, and American Beach became a less popular vacation destination as more African Americans turned to locations near their homes.
A.L. Lewis’ great-granddaughter MaVynee Betsch, known to locals as the “Beach Lady”, returned to American Beach in 1977 to fight for its preservation. For years, she planted trees along Lewis street, offered historical tours of the beach, and fought to raise public awareness of the beach and its struggle until her death September 2005. She wanted to make American Beach a monument to black Americans’ determination to overcome the obstacles of the Jim Crow era. As of January 2001, American Beach is listed as a historic site by the National Register of Historic Places.