One of the most fascinating chapters in Amelia Island's history takes place in and around American Beach on the island's south end. In addition to the A.L. Lewis Museum
, folks can also take a step back in time with Ron Miller, tour guide extraordinaire and owner of Coast One Tours
, whose mission is to "Educate and share the History of how and why American Beach was founded". On a recent tour with Ron and his lovely wife, Avis, I was educated, enlightened and enraptured with not only his tour but the amazing history he provided. Before you meet Ron, let's first get a background glimpse of American Beach, if you're not familiar.
American Beach was founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company
and Florida's first African American millionaire. In a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented Blacks from sharing beaches, Mr. Lewis purchased 35 ocean front acres on Amelia Island's south end so his employees would not only have a place to vacation but also have the opportunity to purchase ocean front real estate as well.
During the 1930's, 40's and 50's those 33 acres soon grew to 216 acres and thrived with homes, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and more. The word spread all over the country via the The Negro Motorist Green Book
and soon celebrities such as Cab Calloway, Hank Aaron, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and more came to vacation and play at American Beach. It was THE place to be! The community thrived for many years until Hurricane Dora devastated the area in 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act opened all beaches to everyone of color. Slowly, this magical speck of paradise began to fade.
Fast forward to the 1970's and enter A. L. Lewis' granddaughter, MaVynee Betsch
, affectionately known to everyone as "The Beach Lady". Betsch was born in 1935 and grew up at American Beach during it's prime. However, after her college years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, she subsequently left Ohio and Florida behind to see the world - in her case as a touring opera singer in Europe for 10 years. Betsch eventually made her way back to American Beach and her roots in 1977 and made it her life's work to protect the environment, dunes, beaches and livlihood of her beloved hometown. And just like that, American Beach was kickstarted with new life again. MaVynee died in 2005 but her legacy continues to this day.
I digress. Back to Ron and Coast One Tours. All tours begin and end at the A. L. Lewis Museum on Julia Street at American Beach. Plan on a couple of hours because he covers a lot of ground from one end of the island to the other with stops made along the way for pictures and discussion. He and Avis work diligently with other community members to not only bring the history of American Beach back to the fore front, but also to shed awareness on other compelling black history of our area such as Franklintown, Peck High School, Old Town and the Middle Passage, as well as Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville. Here is a little of my conversation with Ron:
Q. Are you from Amelia Island originally? If not, where did you move here from and what brought you here?
A. I was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. After my older sister married into the A.L. Lewis family, I would come up just about every weekend as a kid (1950's). It was such a great place back then. Everybody knew everybody and every kid was everybody's child. I was well looked after! Just wonderful memories. You see that buildng right over there? That was the El Patio where kids would go to play pinball and eat cotton candy while the parents were having a big time at Evans’ Rendezvous club.
Side Note: Evans’ Rendezvous club was American Beach’s most famous nightclub where celebrities such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and James Brown performed. It was built in 1948 by the club’s owner, Willie Evans, Sr.
Q. What kindled this passion for you and why did you choose to pursue it?
A. For 15 years I would tour people for free! Avis is the one who suggested I make a business out of it. I grew up here and am very passionate about this place.
Q. What do you know now that you wished you had know 30-40 years ago regarding Amelia Island history?
A. Property values! I should have bought ocean front property back when I had the chance.
Side Note: Ervin's Rest was the second house built on American Beach in 1938 for Louis Ervin, the Vice President of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, as a vacation home for him and his family. The home made an appearance in the 2002 movie “Sunshine State.”
Q. What are folks the most surprised to learn from taking one of your tours? Their "wow" moment.
A. It would probably be when we're at Old Town and I tell them about The Middle Passage. Some of the horrible things that were done to the slaves and the inhumane treatment of them.
Side Note: The Middle Passage was the stage of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas as part of the triangular slave trade. Learn more about it here.
Q. What do you hope folks take away with them after attending one of your tours?
A. History of course and an urge to come back. Come back to American Beach and buy property and make it great again. It will never be the same as it was all those years ago but maybe the next generation can start new memories here.
Q. Did you personally know MaVynee Betsch? If so, can you give us any thoughts or memories of her?
A. Oh yes. I knew MaVynee very well. I was actually with her the night she died. She was a fascinating person and was so protective of her beloved NaNa dune.
Side Note: Standing over 60 feet high, “NaNa” is the tallest sand dune in the state of Florida. The preservation of this dune can be attributed to MaVynee's staunch advocacy for environmental concerns; particularly with relation to “NaNa” and the sea turtles.
If you're ready to learn more about African American history on and around Amelia Island, I highly recommend Coast One Tours. Ron and Avis are professional, personable and passionate about what they do and I promise you might just learn something. For more information, call 904-635-9081 or book a tour online