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Beach Lady

MaVynee Betsch wants to memorialize a haven for African-Americans in the time of Jim Crow

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When I telephoned my friend MaVynee Betsch in American Beach, Florida, recently, I got her answering machine. It would be hard to overstate my amazement. An answering machine! In all the years I’ve known MaVynee, she’s never even had a home telephone. Actually, for many of those years, she didn’t have a home. She resided sporadically in a donated trailer or in loaned basement rooms, but primarily (and willfully) on a chaise longue on the beach. Now, at the firm insistence of family and friends, she has moved into a small apartment, got herself listed with directory assistance and given up her nomad ways. Or maybe not. "Hello," said the voice on the tape. "This is the Beach Lady. If you’re getting this message, it may be because I have turned into a butterfly and floated out over the sand dune."

That’s MaVynee: defying gravity, determinedly whimsical in the face of adversity and diminished fortunes. She was not always a hermit at the beach. She was raised in one of the preeminent black families in the South and was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She studied voice in Paris and London, and sang opera throughout Germany during the mid- 1950s and early ’60s in concert halls where she is still remembered four decades after she quit her glamorous career because she felt herself called home to Florida. She jettisoned more than her diva status. She also gave away her significant inheritance, writing checks to conservation causes until the money ran out in the late 1970s, with the intangible compensation that a textbook on butterflies is dedicated to her and an Atlantic-traveling whale has been given her name (MaVynee #1151) by biologists at Boston’s New England Aquarium. If MaVynee does indeed decide to float off as a butterfly, she certainly won’t lack for credentials.

In spring 2002, MaVynee was diagnosed with cancer, and surgeons removed her stomach. That triggered her family’s insistence that she finally move indoors. In the fall came worse news: her cancer had recurred and spread, and doctors said she might have only months to live. That’s why I was calling. When MaVynee heard my voice, she picked up the phone (MaVynee, already screening her calls!), but she didn’t want to linger on her health. She wanted to discuss her plans. MaVynee intends to start a museum.

The institution MaVynee envisions will contain the history of American Beach, the town where she’s lived many of her 68 years. American Beach is on Amelia Island, nearly 40 miles north of downtown Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast. It was built in the 1930s by Florida’s first insurance company, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, at the behest of its president, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire. For decades it flourished as an ocean-side paradise for blacks from around the country, who admittedly had little choice. "When we were children, could we go to the beach just anywhere we wanted?" MaVynee asks the college kids who come through town on buses for history tours. "Uh-uh. No...way...José!" Her voice is as cultured, worldly and refined as you’d expect a former opera star’s to be, and her carriage so regal that when she sits on her busted plastic beach chair on the borrowed sundeck of Abraham Lincoln Lewis’ old home (the oldest house on the beach), you would think that she owned the place. Which in a way she does: A. L. Lewis was her great-grandfather.

Many of those visiting the Beach in its heyday were likewise illustrious—writer Zora Neale Hurston, heavyweight champion Joe Louis, entertainer Cab Calloway and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph among them. But most were ordinary working-class African-Americans who came to enjoy (as the Beach’s advertisements phrased it) "relaxation and recreation without humiliation." The town retains even today that democratic mix. It is the home of one of the first black graduates of Mount Holyoke and the first black Florida supreme court justice since Reconstruction. And it is also the home of ordinary folks. "See that house?" MaVynee asks visitors. "A maid lives there. And a postman lives over there. Where else in America do maids own beach homes?"

American Beach was born in a time when black life was dominated by the strictures of Jim Crow. Shut out from the white economy, African-Americans created their own, and in Philadelphia and Atlanta and Los Angeles and most other major American cities, they lived and shopped in a separate universe parallel to the white one nearby. Jacksonville had its own thriving black stores and restaurants, factories, newspapers, banks, insurance companies and hospitals and, as a direct consequence, its own black professional establishment. If that establishment was wealthy and educated, it was also invisible to most whites, who tended to think of black people as entertainers, criminals or "the help." The black middle class even vacationed out of white sight, in resorts like Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Val Verde outside Los Angeles. And American Beach.

Most of those places have languished—after the demise of segregation, they weren’t needed the way they once had been, and the businesses that created and fostered them closed as well. The Afro-American Life Insurance Company shut its doors in 1991, and what’s left of American Beach, with fewer than 25 year-round families, doesn’t even make an appearance on many Florida maps. Most of its homes are aging and modest; a few of the grandest have been torn down. And its businesses—the nightclubs, hotels and restaurants that used to throb with activity all summer night—are boarded up.

There are many who think American Beach will not be around much longer, considering the pressure from rich developers. Eight years ago, a large section of property that had once belonged to the Beach, including a giant sand dune that dominates the town, was sold to Amelia Island Plantation, one of the multimillion-dollar golf and vacation resorts that are American Beach’s neighbors. MaVynee vehemently opposed the sale—we are talking, after all, about the same dune over which she envisions flapping her butterfly wings. She calls it NaNa and grieved its loss as though the dune were a member of her family. The resort preserved it and built a golf course on much of the land behind it.

If this all makes the idea of an American Beach museum seem quixotic, add the melancholy fact that the museum’s main advocate is herself a veritable pauper. MaVynee’s minimal rent is paid by her sister in North Carolina and her medical bills by Social Security. Friends pony up for her pharmacy and phone bills. But those who know her know never to bet against her. In whatever celestial gambling den museum futures are traded, the museum at American Beach may be listed as a long shot. But the smart money’s on the Beach Lady. After all, MaVynee has a way of beating the odds.

Case in point: NaNa. This year, Amelia Island Plantation, MaVynee’s old antagonist, made arrangements to transfer the sand dune, in MaVynee’s honor, to the National Park Service. MaVynee’s friends wanted to present the news to her as a surprise on her birthday this past January 13, but they discovered that the transfer required, literally, an act of Congress. Now, Representative Ander Crenshaw and Senator Bill Nelson, both of Florida, have come to the rescue; they are introducing the necessary legislation.

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