‘A Place For Recreation And Relaxation Without Humiliation,’ American Beach On Amelia Island, Florida

NaNa Dune, the tallest dune in Florida, at American Beach on Amelia Island. North Florida

“A place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln Lewis describing American Beach, the first resort in Florida purpose-built to welcome Black visitors which he helped found in 1935.

Lewis is widely considered Florida’s first Black millionaire. His fortune came after starting the state’s first insurance company in 1901, the first Black insurance company certainly, the first insurance company–period–depending on who you ask. That was Jacksonville’s Afro American Life Insurance Company.

The heyday of American Beach lasted until 1964. That year, Hurricane Dora physically devastated the community and the signature of the Civil Rights Act finally forced beaches around the state and the South to integrate.

For three decades in between, American Beach welcomed thousands of visitors each year, many of them traveling hundreds of miles seeking “a place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

As police officers were storming into the surf with batons as nearby as St. Augustine, Florida, 60 miles south, dragging Black protestors engaging in “wade-ins” out of the water at whites-only beaches, American Beach offered a beacon of hospitality.

“Relaxation without humiliation.” Or Brutalization. Or Incarceration.  

“It was like Pinocchio when he went to Pleasure Island and just did everything that he wanted to do and just had so much fun,” Marsha Dean Phelts, author of “An American Beach for African Americans,” a history of American Beach, said when interviewed on the “Welcome to Florida” podcast in June of 2020.

Phelts was born and raised in nearby Jacksonville, vacationed at American Beach during its peak and moved to Amelia Island for good in 1988.

“Coming to the beach was a place where you were wanted and you felt the way you felt when you went into your big mama’s house–nothing is going to go wrong–coming to the beach my whole life was sooo much fun,” Phelts recalled on “Welcome to Florida.” “Back then, when family came, it wasn’t just your family that lived around the corner and down the street. Uncle Freddie came from Philadelphia–WOW!, that’s wonderful–Annabelle came from Tallahassee–there was just a whole lotta’ people.”

Everyone who experienced American Beach first-hand through the 40s and 50s remembers the crowds. Families. Church groups.

Scarcely a car or person can be found there most days now, save for the contractors and builders putting up new luxury homes and the landscaping crews.

Phelts especially remembers school trips to American Beach. The entire school went. Her anticipation the week leading up and night before was almost too much to bear.

“We’d get into the bus and it was at the end of the (school) year, we’d come in May–everybody came, the teachers came, the administrators came, and the cafeteria prepared your lunch which means everybody had the same thing,” Phelts remembers. “At school, you had bologna and somebody else had ham, but coming to the beach picnic, everybody had the same delicious fried chicken and lemonade and the super-sweet thing about coming to the beach was that you could go into the water.”

While most everything else has changed at American Beach since those days, the “water”–the beach–remains the same. A wide, soft, flat stretch of finely ground sand looking out over an endless expanse of sparkling Atlantic Ocean.

Another prominent remnant remaining untouched from the glory days is Little NaNa Dune. Thanks to its acquisition on January 13, 2021 by the North Florida Land Trust for $1.255 million, Little NaNa Dune will forever be spared from the development which has scraped parts of American Beach to the ground for vacation homes and remains the greatest threat to the community’s past and future.

January 13 was symbolically chosen for the acquisition date to honor the legacy of MaVynee Betsch, A.L. Lewis’s great-granddaughter, who lived at American Beach and was known affectionately as “the Beach Lady.”

Betsch was a champion for the preservation of American Beach, an effective one.

Phelts remembers her as a “busy body” who could aggravate not only Nassau County officials into protecting the landscape, but her neighbors as well, admonishing them about cutting their grass and reducing the “forage” available for the threatened gopher tortoises which call the area home.

Phelts recalls Betsch placing signs around NaNa Dune warning of “Danger! Snakes!” to discourage people from climbing it which results in great damage.

“She was much loved by the people on the Beach,” Phelts said. “That was her dune.”

The NaNa Dune system, of which Little NaNa is a part, is the tallest remaining dune system in Florida.

American Beach, however, was more than a beach, more than a dune.

Much more.

“American Beach was, and is, a teensy, weensy town, and it was a town that welcomed its people,” Phlets said. “There were lodging places such as the A.L. Lewis Motel, there was Duck’s Inn, but anybody who had a house, they would rent you a room in the house, and buses would come from Atlanta (300 miles away) as if it was just crossing the bridge to get here–there were so many people from Atlanta–and from Alabama. The community was so happy to have you because it meant that (everyone who) the motel and the lodging places couldn’t put up, they were knocking on your door–they welcomed you and would rent you a room.”

Evans Rendezvous, the nightclub at American Beach, “that was the heartbeat,” Phelts says. Cab Calloway played there. Ray Charles. James Brown.

They were among the many celebrities to visit, a list which included boxing champion Joe Lewis, baseball’s Hank Aaron, author Zora Neale Hurston and activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Visiting American Beach today reveals both “before” and “after.” After its glory days during Jim Crow. Before what will hopefully become a dynamic renaissance. Evan’s Rendezvous is abandoned and boarded up. Duck’s has been condemned. Both stand feet from multi-million dollar residences.

Squint hard, though, and imagine what this place could be. The bones are still here, creeky and run down, but extant.

With vision from local leadership working in collaboration with residents, you can almost hear live music coming from Evan’s Rendezvous again. Community gardens and parks could occupy the still numerous non-developed lots. A new Duck’s.

And people.

People from all over.

Wide pedestrian avenues with families, kids eating ice cream cones, food trucks, artists, musicians. Sunbathers and bird watchers. Tourists seeking history and culture.

American Beach has a story which can’t be manufactured. Authenticity.

It’s quiet here now, but this place wants to sing. American Beach wants to dance. This place, unlike so many of the Civil Rights landmarks around the nation tourists seek out wasn’t consecrated by blood and terror, it was consecrated by joy.

A place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation.

To donate in support of North Florida Land Trust’s acquisition of Little NaNa Dune, visit its Amelia Forever campaign.

The American Beach Museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19.