October 27, 2023
If you’ve ever visited the A.L. Lewis Museum at American Beach on the south end of Amelia Island, chances are you’ve had a history lesson. And, chances are you’ve learned about Mavynee Betsch, affectionately known as the “Beach Lady.” Mavynee left an indelible mark on both the environmental and cultural landscapes on Amelia Island and led a most amazing life.
Born on January 13, 1935, in Jacksonville, Florida, Mavynee Betch hailed from a prominent African-American family with deep roots in the south. Her grandparents were Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the visionary behind Amelia Island’s American Beach, and Mary Kingsley Sammis, who had a lineage tracing back to plantation owner, Zephaniah Kingsley and Anna Kingsley of Jacksonville’s Kingsley Plantation.
Betsch spent her formative years on American Beach but then her educational journey took her to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Once completing her bachelor’s degree in 1955, she embarked on a remarkable journey to Europe, where she pursued a career as an opera singer for a decade. Her opera debut took place in Braunschweig Germany in 1959!
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 livelihood of her grandfather’s legacy, and her beloved hometown, from the perils of development and destruction. She actively championed the cultivation of trees and the nurturing of native wildflowers. With a deep love for animals and wildlife, she took it upon herself to raise awareness by placing signs that alerted both locals and visitors about nesting sea turtles.
A critical moment arose when a south-island development posed a threat to the NaNa dunes, named after the Twi word “NaNa,” which means “grandmother” in the West African language. In response, Betsch sprung into action and convinced them to safeguard the 60-foot dune system that continues to enjoy protection today as part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve by providing a vital habitat for a diverse array of native wildlife and plant species.
Mavynee Betch also envisioned and helped realize the A. L. Lewis Museum, which chronicles the rich history of her beloved American Beach where she spent so many of her years. It is worth your time to not only visit the museum but to also take a tour with Ron and Avis Miller of Coast One Tours. Their passion and knowledge, not only of Mavynee, but of black history on Amelia Island, is invaluable.
In 2021, The Amelia Island Dance Festival created the Beach Lady Film Project, a series of short, filmed dances, each honoring an aspect of MaVynee Betsch’s life and work. These beautifully choreographed dances, all filmed at American Beach, depict the life and spirit of this amazing woman who spent the better part of her adult life educating the public on the black history and the environmental importance of American Beach. Take a look…
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