American Beach Museum on Amelia Island

Florida’s tallest sand dune is preserved on Amelia Island. The story of American Beach, a dune called Nana, and “the Beach Lady” will be told by the new American Beach Museum.

Nana, Tallest Dune in Florida, American Beach, Amelia Island
Nana, Tallest Dune in Florida, American Beach, Amelia Island
“The Sands of Time, An American Beach Story”

A sand dune on Amelia Island dubbed “Nana” is the tallest in the state of Florida, located in historic American Beach. It’s now part of the National Park System (Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve).

The American Beach Museum, celebrating its Grand Opening September 6, 2014, will educate visitors about this historic beach community, its natural centerpiece, Nana, and legacy of “the Beach Lady,” the most vocal advocate for the area’s preservation.

For those unfamiliar, American Beach is flanked by Amelia Island’s largest beach & golf resorts, Omni Amelia Island Plantation and Summer Beach Resort. Back in 2002, the American Beach Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the beach enclave for its African American cultural heritage. American Beach was a vacation spot for African Americans back when beaches in America were segregated.

The area encompassing this beautiful sand dune in American Beach had initially been purchased by the previous owners of the Plantation, the Amelia Island Plantation Co., (AIP), when Jack Healan was President. However, the resort heard the voice of their neighbor at American Beach, MaVynee Betsch (“the Beach Lady”) and her desire to preserve the dune for posterity. About ten years ago, the Nana sand dune system (8.5 acres of property) was donated by the former owners of the resort, Amelia Island Plantation Co., in her honor, to the National Park Service.

Amelia Island’s American Beach Museum Grand Opening

The American Beach Museum is housed inside the American Beach Community Center and will officially open on Saturday, September 6, 2014. The Museum’s Grand Opening will be held from 11 am to 4 pm at 1600 Julia Street (off First Coast Highway) on Amelia Island, Florida (see Google map at end of article). After the Grand Opening, the Museum will be open on Fridays and Saturdays 10 am to 2 pm and on Sundays from 1 pm to 5 pm (also by appointment, call 904-510-7036).

The Opening Exhibit “The Sands of Time: An American Beach Story” is the realization of a longtime dream held by MaVynee Betsch, who passed away in 2005. Known far and wide as “the Beach Lady,” Betsch was an historian, activist and environmentalist. She was also the great granddaughter of American Beach’s founder, A.L. Lewis, president of the Afro American Life Insurance Company.

Lewis founded American Beach in 1935 as a place of relaxation and recreation for African Americans. Providing an escape from the stress of racism and segregation for generations of devoted beach-goers, American Beach quickly became both a desirable destination and a richly-evolving community on Florida’s beautiful Amelia Island. For decades, the Beach Lady was an iconic figure on the island, championing environmental causes and the preservation of the island’s history, culture and stories. The success of American Beach — and Betsch’s passion for the community and its heritage — is a captivating story.

Carol J. Alexander, the Project Director and Curator of the museum stated “…following in the Beach Lady’s footsteps in the sand has been a spiritual and dedicated journey. This inaugural exhibition has been guided by her notes on pages, her voice in the wind over the ocean and her spiritual energy that lingers in every crystal of sand on American Beach. It is an honor and privilege for me as “her spiritual daughter” to guide, curate and manage this project.”

The inaugural exhibition, The Sands of Time: An American Beach Story, will feature the history of American Beach, photographs, a filmed tour of the beach by the Beach Lady, along with her signature seven-foot locks of hair.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, sister of the Beach Lady will attend and speak at the opening ceremony. “My sister, MaVynee Oshun Betsch, “The Beach Lady,” was a force! Without her vision, determination and bodaciousness, in cahoots with those whom were willing to join her in a righteous struggle, there would be no American Beach as we know and enjoy it today. It is with deep pride and joy that all of us in the A.L. Lewis family celebrate the opening of this museum. We are grateful to everyone who has worked to make the dream of this museum a reality.”

The Demise of American Beach: Civil Rights Movement & Hurricane

“1964, Beginning of the End”

“On September 10, 1964, Hurricane Dora slammed into American Beach, damaging or destroying many homes and businesses. The damage was a setback for the community. But it proved minor compared with the setback caused, ironically, by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the words of historian Phelts: “The civil rights legislated in 1964 had opened all public facilities to African Americans. Former American Beach vacationers and day-trippers now frolicked on Miami Beach, raced up and down the wide sands at Daytona, wore out the cobblestones of Savannah, and rode high at St. Simons Island. All along the shores of the East Coast, blacks explored areas that had once been off limits. The three-day weekends at American Beach shrank to one day; the Sunday visitors and day-trippers no longer stayed overnight. Loaded buses no longer caused a bottleneck at the crossroads. With so little business most of the restaurants and resort establishments closed.” (National Park Service)

“Rendezvous Festival” to feature American Beach Music & History
Evans' Rendezvous To Be Restored As Part of American Beach Historic Park
Evans’ Rendezvous To Be Restored

Besides the Grand Opening of the American Beach Museum September 6, 2014, American Beach will be brought further into the spotlight in June 2015. American Beach’s music and entertainment legacy takes the stage as part of new annual Amelia Island “International Film, Music and Gaming Festival” to debut in 2015.

The Amelia Island Rendezvous Festival was named after a music club that thrived during the 1930s to 1950s located in American Beach. Famous musicians such as Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, James Brown And Billie Daniels performed there during the period. The Rendezvous Festival will be ten days long (June 5-14, 2015) with events held at various venues around Amelia Island including American Beach, the Ritz-Carlton, Fernandina’s Main Beach and historic downtown Fernandina.

The original Evans’ Rendezvous building is boarded up, but still stands in American Beach, and one day will undergo a major transformation. (Ten years ago, the Trust for Public Land bought the property to preserve it for a future cultural center and historic park.) The new Amelia Island Rendezvous Festival intends to raise additional funds to help in the future development of this park and the eventual restoration of the old nightclub. (Note: The Rendezvous Festival incorporates the former “Amelia Island Film Festival.”)

By The Editor

Observations of island life, news & opinion by W.B. Lawson. Wendy has enjoyed the laid-back Amelia Island lifestyle since 1993. Her professional background began at a newspaper in NY. She then worked in PR/Investor Relations at Fortune 500 company, and later became a managing editor at an equity research publishing firm. She was Series 7 licensed while with Merrill Lynch Private Client Group.