American Beach and Kingsley Plantation: History and Heritage
The story of the African-American experience on and around Amelia Island is long, fascinating, and on special display this month, with the annual Heritage Celebrations taking place at Kingsley Plantation on February 17th and 24th.
"Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, and American Beach form a golden triangle for black history for northeast Florida, and Kingsley Plantation is the gem of that triangle."
- MaVynee Betsch "The Beach Lady"
Black History Month presents an opportunity to take a look at a particularly fascinating family story from Amelia Island's history and heritage. In 1935, the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company led by Abraham Lincoln (A.L.) Lewis bought three parcels of land to create a beach and resort in response to Florida's segregation laws.
It became a glorious oceanfront haven that and, in its heyday, its restaurants and nightclubs attracted superstars such as Cab Calloway, Joe Louis, Hank Aaron, Ray Charles and James Brown. Today, American Beach is the first stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and home to the continually expanding American Beach Museum
, which features photographs and a filmed tour of the beach by the late MaVynee Betsch, known as "The Beach Lady." A spirited advocate for the area and a champion of environmental issues, she was the great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis.
The family's deep roots are also in evidence at Kingsley Planation, about 20 minutes south of American Beach. A.L. Lewis married the great-granddaughter of the plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and Anna Madgigine Jai, a Senegalese woman whom Kingsley originally purchased as a slave. The couple married and Anna actively participated in plantation management, acquiring her own land and slaves when she was freed by Kingsley in 1811.
Today, Kingsley Plantation
is one of the few remaining examples of the plantation system of territorial Florida and the site of what might be the oldest plantation house in Florida. Visitors can explore the plantation house, remains of 25 tabby construction slave quarters, a barn, waterfront, kitchen house, and interpretive garden. The excellent audio tour is available free when you check out specially programmed iPhones at the Kingsley Plantation Visitor Center. The program knows where you are on the grounds and plays the appropriate selection when you arrive at the corresponding site. Part of the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
, Kingsley Plantation hosts annual Heritage Celebrations every February which include musical performances, a Kids' Corner, crafts, storytelling,and spirituals.
According to the event's originator (and Kingsley descendant) Manuel Lebron, "Kingsley Plantation is a place that breaks expectations, a place where you can learn the story of a free African woman, who had been a slave, who owned and managed her own property. It a place whose owner, Zephaniah Kingsley, advocated the end of prejudice in society yet upheld slavery. Every year we keep their memory and spirit alive, by visiting the park and the event - physically and emotionally. We remember the enslaved and the free at this plantation. It is a way we together can continue to fight for a world where absolutely all types of discrimination are vanished forever."