STORIES BY ZAIN BEVERLY

The Legacy of American Beach

Published: Oct. 5, 2020

American Beach Entrance Sign. Photo by Zain Beverly.

American Beach is a relatively sleepy beach nestled on the southern side of Amelia Island in the unincorporated community of Franklintown. Every year its attendance numbers are dwarfed by the close by Main Beach, but it used to be a lot more competitive. 

This now minor beach was once a haven for African Americans to vacation and enjoy themselves without fear of prosecution or the humility that came with segregated beaches. Every year, many African Americans would flock to its sparkly white sands to enjoy something many take for granted, living on the First Coast

American Beach in the 1940’s. Courtesy: Amelia Island Museum of History

Founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the head of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in Jacksonville, it was used by his company primarily for company outings. After two more land acquisitions in the next five years, the community had 216 acres and Lewis started selling the land to the black community. 

From there, the beach cemented itself as a mainstay in Northeast Florida, as a place of black entertainment and leisure.

Prominent black entertainers such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and James Brown made appearances at the nightclub on the beach, Evan’s Rendezvous. Which was the place to be after a long day of laying in the Florida sun.

However, by the time the 1960s rolled around, the heyday of American Beach was on the decline. The Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964, which started the desegregation of Florida’s beaches, and in August of that same year, disaster struck.

The First Coast is the farthest west one can be and still be on eastern coast of the continental United States. This provides a natural barrier to the tropical storms and hurricanes that come from the Carribean. Because of this, no storm had ever made landfall on the First Coast at hurricane speeds in recorded history. 

Until Hurricane Dora.

With winds at nearly 110 MPH by the time it hit the First Coast, Dora decimated the coasts of Jacksonville and its surrounding areas, American Beach included. All over Amelia Island, small summer homes were falling apart, having to be held up by struts and supports, or gone completely.

Amelia Island home after Hurricane Dore. Courtesy: Amelia Island Museum of History

American Beach was struggling to recover, and its residents were getting older, passing on whatever they had left to their children. Then, the 1970s recession hit America.

 The first economic downturn since World War II, it had been four decades since Americans had dealt with a widespread economic crisis, and many were looking for ways to stay afloat. 

Carol Alexander, president of MaBu Culture and American Beach Museum board member, expressed what it was like during those times.

“We were standing in lines just to get gas on odd and even numbers,” said Alexander.

During these hard times, a new player on Amelia Island sprang up to seize on the opportunity.

The Amelia Island Plantation, now the Omni Amelia Island Resort, was founded in 1971, and, in contrast to American Beach, attracted many white vacationers to the island. The elderly owners of American Beach and their younger descendants were struggling through the recession, and the Plantation came knocking with a tempting offer.

“For many people, these were vacation homes, second homes,” said Alexander. “So they sold their land for so cheap, it was mind-boggling.”

The plantation bought as much land as they could during the 70s, 80s, and 90s to expand their new resort, leaving American beach’s influence diminished in the process.

Today, the now historic district of American Beach is down from 216 acres at its height, to 40 acres. The residents are trying to hold on to its history and heritage they grew up with. 

One such resident is Marsha Phelts, who lives in American Beach, just two streets from the coast. She moved to American Beach in the 80s after visiting many times when she was younger. She has worked to collect records and document the history of American Beach throughout her time living there.

In February, the vacation home of American Beach’s founder A.L. Lewis was torn down by its owner. To some this seems like another step along American Beach’s long decline, but Phelts is confident that it’s in good hands.

“I know the man who owns that house,” said Phelts. “He’s lived here a long time and he’s going to rebuild and take good care of it.” 

A L. Lewis’ vacation home being rebuilt. Photo by Zain Beverly

American Beach is a quaint coastal community with a rich and important history, and for the time being, it’s not going anywhere.