MaVynee Betsch has been dead for 15 years now, but it can be hard to tell sometimes. Her influence can be felt all over American Beach, a slice of ocean-adjacent land in Amelia Island she grew up in and advocated for so vigorously for the last 40 years of her life.
Christened Marvyne Elisabeth Betsch, the Beach Lady was born into black royalty (literally) on Sunday, January 13, 1935. She was born in Jacksonville, but grew up in American Beach, which functioned as a sort of oasis for the state’s Black community during the Jim Crow era.
Betsch can draw a direct line to Anna Kingsley (1793-1870), a Wolof princess who was kidnapped from what is today known as Senegal, then taken to Cuba and sold into slavery at age 13. Her husband, Zephaniah Kingsley (1765-1843), freed her five years later; together they established Kingsley Plantation in 1814. After his death, she successfully fought in court for the right to inherit the estate, which is now part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Their great-granddaughter Mary was the wife of A.L. Lewis, and his granddaughter was MaVynee Betsch.
The great Abraham Lincoln “A.L.” Lewis founded American Beach mere weeks after Betsch’s birth. Florida’s first Black millionaire, Lewis made his fortune running the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. The business opened in 1901, then burned to the ground mere weeks later, during the Great Fire of 1901. He rebuilt the business, bigger and better than ever. Lewis himself became a dominant force in Black culture in the south, at a time when strong leadership was of critical importance.
Lewis’ vision expanded as he entered his golden years, and American Beach was his last and most important innovation. Segregation forced Black people all over the country to develop their own self-sufficient, freestanding institutions–a massive professional class that included doctors, lawyers and politicians, as well as institutions like schools, colleges and universities, nightclubs, restaurants, libraries, stores, newspapers and radio stations. They even had their own police and fire departments in some cities. Lewis’ insurance business was so successful because he marketed directly to those communities, so he knew better than most how much they contributed to the American economy.
Cities like New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Memphis, and Washington D.C., cultivated communities that functioned as cities within cities, in the process incubating a new generation of business and political leaders who directly influenced the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a slew of iconic writers, actors, artists, and musicians whose influence proved decisive in lifting American culture to global prominence; a process that continues to this day.
The most famous examples of this dynamic are probably the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the legendary “Black Wall Street” that thrived in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, OK–prior to its brutal dissolution in 1921. But it wasn’t just the big cities; similar developments were taking place in countless smaller towns all over the country, including the Brooklyn/LaVilla area in Jacksonville, where Lewis himself was a fixture.
Inspired by a lifetime of experiences in and around these communities, Lewis’ last power move was to create something similar for his peers here in Northeast Florida. It was similar, but also very new. No matter where you go around the world, the land adjacent to lakes, rivers, and especially beaches, has always carried a premium, so access to such places was usually restricted to whites. At a time when restrooms and water fountains were still segregated, Black people were often not even allowed to swim in such places, let alone own land nearby. In those rare occasions when beach areas were somewhat integrated, harassment from hostile whites, and sometimes violence, was of constant concern, so most Black families stayed away. In many cases, even swimming pools were dangerous territories. This was a big deal for the growing numbers of newly affluent Blacks who wanted the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labors, just like everyone else had been.
Lewis spent the last decade of his life building American Beach into what would prove to be a thriving community by the time of his death. It was only 40 acres, about a quarter-mile square, but its impact was much bigger. For decades, American Beach was a hub for Black celebrities traveling through the state: Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Ossie Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, Hank Aaron, Billy Eckstine, A. Philip Randolph, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, and James Brown are but a few notables who all spent time there. Located on Amelia Island, 40 miles north of downtown Jacksonville, it quickly became a destination spot for Black people from all over the country. It stands today as the centerpiece of his legacy.
That proud history extended down to Betsch and her immediate family, which includes her younger sister Johnnetta B. Cole, an anthropologist and educator who served as president of Spelman College, as well as Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Their younger brother is the drummer John Betsch, who’s played with a host of jazz legends including Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, and Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand).
As for the eldest child, MaVynee, she made her living as an opera singer. Trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, she earned her degree in 1955, then moved immediately to Europe, working the continental circuit for a decade. Her life and focus changed following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in the 1970s. She returned home to discover that American Beach had changed, too. Desegregation and the overall economic malaise of the era had drained the area of its former vitality, and the legacy left there by her family had become something of an afterthought to the new generation of Floridians.
Betsch then took it upon herself to remind us all of what had been lost, and of what still remained. She became a one-woman lobbying firm, using that classically trained voice to advocate for the community. These efforts bore sweet fruit: more tourism, new residents and, eventually, the historical designation that helped bring Lewis’ vision back into focus. For all this, she earned a nickname that she wore proudly for the rest of her life: “The Beach Lady”. She cut a striking figure in bright, tribal clothing, long fingernails, and dreadlocks that stretched down to her feet.
Unfortunately, the cancer eventually returned in 2002, and MaVynee Betsch died at age 70 on September 5, 2005. Two months later, she was named an Unsung Hero of Compassion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; that title is most appropriate. Born into the upper-class, Betsch died with almost nothing, having given away almost everything she had, spending her final years on a chaise lounge on the beach she loved more than anything in the world. She lived long enough to know that her efforts had borne fruit. The 21st century saw a new generation come to appreciate American Beach, which was added to the National Registry of Historic Places on January 28, 2002.
It makes perfect sense that the city and its most prominent advocate both came into existence in the same year, since they ran on parallel tracks for most of the 20th century. To this day, the two are basically synonymous with each other, and many long-time residents still speak of her as if she’s still around. In many ways, she still is. The American Beach Museum consists largely of the artifacts and documents that she obsessively collected during her life. NaNa Dune, one of the town’s landmarks, was named after Betsch. There is a butterfly textbook dedicated to her, and the New England Aquarium in Boston even named a whale (“MaVynee #1151”) in her honor.
Today, the population of American Beach hovers just north of 20,000 people, and what was once an exclusively Black enclave has now evolved into a racially and culturally diverse community that is fiercely protective of the legacy left in their care. The area’s evolution has been awkward, at times, and they’re now wrestling with many of the same issues faced by historical areas across the First Coast. The goal is always to grow, outward and upward, attracting fresh faces and new investment. The challenge is in doing so without sacrificing the unique character that makes it so attractive to begin with. The controversies will continue, as they must, but American Beach will never go away, because history is on their side. The future is on their side, as well.
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s September 2020 issue.