July 12, 2020


A Dune Deal

A historic African-American stretch of beach staves off development.

Bob Snell | 1/1/2005
To most it is a simple dune -- a hill of sand and beach grass that towers over the historic Amelia Island enclave of American Beach.

To MaVynee Betsch, however, it is "Nana" -- a spiritual oasis that the self-proclaimed "Beach Lady" has scaled for decades in search of inspiration. For much of the 1990s, it seemed that "Nana" and the entire 100-acre American Beach community were destined to be swallowed by the tide of luxury hotels and condos that line the northernmost point on Florida's Atlantic Coast.

But thanks to a landmark agreement among developers, preservationists and the federal government, "Nana" will continue to dominate this historically African-American village.

In October, President Bush signed legislation making the 8.5-acre dune part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve -- a massive federal park that borders Duval and Nassau counties.

It was the second major victory for American Beach preservationists, who two years ago had their entire community added to the National Register of Historic Places. The dual federal designations mean any changes to American Beach will be done under the watchful eye of park officials and preservationists.

Nestled between the Ritz-Carlton hotel to the north and the sprawling Amelia Island Plantation resort to the south, American Beach is an anomaly. Small, colorful, weather-beaten homes line the half-dozen streets that comprise the 70-year-old community. Betsch likes to point out that "if you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of history."

Insurance entrepreneur Abraham Lincoln Lewis -- Betsch's great-grandfather and Florida's first black millionaire -- founded American Beach in 1935. He bought 200 acres of oceanfront property and sold lots to blacks so they could have a place to enjoy the beach in the days of segregation. It became a mecca for black vacationers, with the Rendezvous nightclub attracting entertainers like Ray Charles and Duke Ellington.

In the mid-'90s, however, Betsch and others worried the beach would become a historical footnote. In 1994, Amelia Island Plantation purchased "Nana" as part of a planned expansion. Meanwhile, several developers began negotiating with property owners in hopes of acquiring enough land for condo towers.

American Beach advocates launched a successful campaign to educate the public about the town's history and the development threat.

"I am very happy Nana is saved," Betsch said at a ceremony honoring the dune's preservation. "There is something special in that sand. It is very spiritual, very healing."

Tags: Northeast

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