When it was first settled in the 16th
century, no one could have foreseen the important and ironic events that would shape Black History on Florida’s Amelia Island. While under Spanish rule in the 1800s, the island would become known as a port for smuggling slaves into the United States. Roughly a century later, Amelia would make history again as the site of American Beach, one of the first Black resorts in the country.
One of the most prolific figures of that resort town era is MaVynee Betsch, who made it her life’s mission to protect and preserve American Beach. When she passed in 2005, MaVynee had become known simply as “The Beach Lady” and is remembered for her fierce, unwavering commitment to her cause. Born in 1935, The Beach Lady believed in the mystical power of the number 5, so, in her honor, we are sharing these five ways to explore Black History on Amelia Island.
- American Beach– American Beach was founded on Amelia Island in 1935 by millionaire Abraham Lincoln (A.L.) Lewis (grandfather to MaVynee Betsch) as Florida’s first Black Beach Resort. An oasis for Black beach-goers in a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented them from sharing beaches, American Beach was home to a number of restaurants, hotels, night clubs, shops and more. On the weekends, beachgoers in the thousands would visit, among them celebrities such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ray Charles, Hank Aaron and James Brown, the King of Soul. Rumor has it that His Majesty was actually turned away from Evans’ Rendezvous, one of the town’s popular nightclubs.
The resort town thrived until 1964, when Hurricane Dora devastated the area. Shortly after, the passing of the Civil Rights Act and desegregation meant that people were able to visit beaches closer to home. Today, visitors can enjoy the beach and visit the A.L. Lewis Museum
to learn more about the African-Americans who found triumph over segregation and disenfranchisement.
- NaNa Dune– In the historic area of American Beach is NaNa Dune. Those who knew MaVynne say she spoke about NaNa like a beloved family member, so some are surprised to learn it’s actually the tallest dune system in Florida. The towering 8.5 acre sand dune is conserved by the National Park Services as part of the African American Civil Rights Grant Program.
Today, travelers can learn about the history of NaNa Dune from MaVynee herself in Amelia Island’s unique augmented reality-powered app experience. Visitors can download the Amelia Island Mobile App in the Apple App Store and Google Play for free.
- Middle Passage –As a port city, Amelia Island’s history is full of stories of conquerors, pirates, merchants, and travelers; those stories include the dark history of human trade routes. The Middle Passage was a stage in the route slave ships took from Africa to America, forcibly transporting millions of Africans to the New World. In Old Town Fernandina, a Middle Passage port marker now stands, commemorating those who died in the crossing and the legacy of those who survived and their descendants.
The Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Africans brought in through the Middle Passage, recognize Fernandina Beach as the southernmost island in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage corridor.
- Amelia Island Museum of History– Dedicated to the art of storytelling, the Amelia Island Museum of History is the first spoken history museum in Florida. One of the museum’s oral history projects, the Heritage Keepers Project, focuses on the local history of Nassau County and the evolution of tourism, Fernandina’s industrial history, and the African American life and influence.
- Amelia Island Williams House– Now an award-winning bed & breakfast in Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach, the Williams House was built in 1856 and named for Marchellus A. Williams in 1858. Williams was a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was a guest at the house while the Confederate flag flew over the island. But that didn’t stop Williams from become active in the Underground Railroad. Union troops used his residences as headquarters and an infirmary during their occupation, and the Williams House became a safe house for fleeing slaves.
- BONUS: Kingsley Plantation– Located about 20 minutes from American Beach, in Duval County, Kingsley Plantation is one of the only examples of a plantation system in Florida today, where visitors can explore the slave quarters, kitchen house and interpretive gardens. The plantation was built in 1798 and named for early owner Zephaniah Kingsley, who lived there with his family until 1837. But the Kingsley story doesn’t end there. Kingsley’s wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, was a slave purchased from Senegal, West Africa. Zephaniah and Anna would become the grandparents of A.L. Lewis and great-grandparents to MaVynee Betsch.
Interested in learning more history? Visit us at AmeliaIsland.com/history.