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Beach Lady

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

The schoolchildren of American Beach have a theory about MaVynee’s magical ability to prevail—they whisper that she’s a shaman or a witch. Their evidence is her appearance: her fingernails are very long—until they got clipped in the hospital, those on her left hand spiraled to more than a foot and a half. Her hair, coiffed into a wheel over her head, cascades in graying dreadlocks down her back and past her ankles. Her hair and clothes are festooned with political buttons, unfailingly radical and generally funny, most expressing her commitment to social and racial justice, ecological causes and vegetarianism. Her colorfulness acts as a mighty come-on, especially for children. "They come to see my hair," MaVynee says mischievously, "and I give ’em a little history."

It’s a history that’s been lost to the larger world and even to the younger generation of blacks. The museum MaVynee envisions would reverse that invisibility and highlight the culture of Abraham Lincoln Lewis’ generation. "It’s awesome," MaVynee says, "how they stuck together and created a world without outside help." The message transcends the artificial boundary of "black history," she says. In this era of corporate scandal, Americans are debating the obligations of the business world and its leaders to society. No group has confronted those questions more directly than did the black businessmen of A. L. Lewis’ generation, who felt an explicit obligation to "uplift" their community.

Herself a vivid relic of that great history, MaVynee has collected many other relics to start her museum: old license plate holders that advertise "Negro Ocean Playground," Afro-American Life Insurance Company ashtrays that vow "A Relief in Distress," and a wealth of papers, including 19th-century land deeds and stock certificates and such manuscripts as A. L. Lewis’ speech before Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. For years MaVynee kept her stash in milk crates, stored out of the rain in her various way stations. She hopes that a formal repository for such treasures will encourage others who experienced the Beach’s history to contribute their keepsakes and records.

Prospects for the museum at American Beach are looking rosy. The county is providing a room in a new community center on the outskirts of town. A committee that includes historians and museum directors hopes to expand MaVynee’s trove and to raise $500,000 in funds. Says Rowena Stewart, former executive director of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City: "We are planning for photographs, signs, posters, clothing of the period—any artifacts we can use to re-create, in this small space, the experience of being at the Beach during the time when its role was so crucial. And we are tape-recording the recollections of the early residents for an oral history archive."

"I know I’m blessed," MaVynee says, "because anytime anything bad happens to me, something good comes out of it. I swear sometimes I think my great-grandfather is looking out for me." He may be at that. MaVynee’s most recent checkup showed the fast-moving cancer stalled in its tracks, and a mystified physician told her that if she keeps on like this, he’ll have to revise his prognosis. She’s beating the odds once again, it seems, and her many friends hope that her floating butterfly days are far ahead of her.

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