The tradition of camping on American Beach began in 1930s, not long after Jacksonville’s Abraham Lincoln Lewis created a place on Amelia Island for African-Americans to go for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” Eighty years later, county leaders are considering changes that would end that tradition.
The tradition of camping on American Beach began in 1930s, not long after Jacksonville’s Abraham Lincoln Lewis bought 216 acres on Amelia Island and created a place for African-Americans to go for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”
In its heyday, American Beach had jazz clubs, restaurants, shops, motels and a “Who’s Who” of celebrity visitors. Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Hank Aaron. But the heart of American Beach always was the beach itself, the water and sand and tallest dune in Florida.
RELATED | Read more from Mark Woods
Before there were homes on American Beach, there were group campouts. After there were homes on American Beach, there still were group campouts.
Eartha White took tuberculosis patients and senior citizens to the beach. They camped in canvas tents under the stars, listened to the waves and woke up to the sunrise.
Desegregation and development changed American Beach. The clubs and motels are long gone. The footprint has shrunk to less than half its original size. But pieces of the historic place remain, everywhere from a museum to the tall dune to a living tradition: campouts on the beach.
That tradition could be the latest piece of American Beach to go.
A Nassau County beach committee, formed to come up with a management plan for the beaches, will recommend to the Nassau County Board of Commissioners a list of changes that involve everything from driving on the beach to camping — all camping, including at American Beach.
The county commissioners meet 6 p.m. Monday. Contrary to some reports, that meeting won’t decide the future of camping on the beach. Mike Mullin, county attorney, says it’s a complicated issue, one that involves the nearby neighborhoods, local enforcement, federal regulations, sea turtles and the only county on the eastern coast of Florida to still allow beach camping.
“I’d say your 60 to 90 days away from some sort of ordinance that can be advertised for public hearings,” he said.
Some of this stems from what has been happening about 3 miles north of American Beach, at another beach access, Peters Point. At county meetings, residents have complained about drugs, drinking, prostitution, trash, reckless beach drivers and more.
Until recently, Peri Frances Betsch had never been to Peters Point. After hearing details and looking at videos and pictures, she certainly understands why people would want to do something about what is happening there.
“We understand the frustrations about Peters Point,” she said. “But that’s not us. People keep saying, ‘It’s not personal, it’s not about you guys.’ But if something is going to impact you, it’s personal.”
For Betsch, this is quite personal.
She is a great-great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and founder of American Beach. And one of her father’s sisters was MaVynee Betsch.
The Beach Lady, as MaVynee became known, dedicated her life to fighting for the preservation and protection of American Beach. When she died, the Beach Lady was buried atop the dune that she had dubbed “Nana” — now a piece of our local national park, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
“This is our sacred place,” Peri Frances Betsch said.
She has been described as her generation’s torchbearer for American Beach. She wants to ensure future generations of African-Americans are connected to the place and, even more broadly, to nature.
“We are people of the land,” she said. “We are people of nature. We lost that.”
With that in mind, she has been organizing a couple of beach campouts a year since 2015. One in July, tied to a full moon, and one near the fall equinox. Two other groups, the Nightsanders and the Beach Cats, have been doing beach campouts for decades.
These are family gatherings. At her group’s last campout, the youngest camper was 8 months old and the oldest was 74. Their mantra, Betsch says, goes beyond “leave no trace.”
She begins each campout with a talk about not only following the laws — for instance, no alcohol on the beach — but also about respecting the place in big and small ways.
“I say, ‘Do you remember MaVynee? Do you want her to haunt you? I don’t think so,’” she said. “We’re there to celebrate the beach. We’re there to lift it up, not to take it down.”
When the beach committee began meeting, she and others had resigned themselves to the idea that the days of free beach camping were over. They were ready for a permit system, for registration procedures and fees, for ways to improve the current system that requires them to move a caravan of vehicles out of the parking lot every night and back in the morning — a point of contention with residents.
They weren’t expecting what one committee member called the “nuclear option” — involving everything from night beach driving to camping at four county access points.
The driving debate has received much of the attention, with heated arguments from both sides. But it’s the idea of a camping ban that led Ronald Starling, one of the Nightsanders campers, to stage a sit-in at American Beach. He initially chained himself to a gazebo. After police told him he had to move, he set up what might be a more fitting protest — a tent on the beach.
Betsch has taken a different approach, using Change.org, asking people to contact commissioners and emphasizing there’s a difference between Peters Point and American Beach — both with what is happening now and what happened in the past.
One of the stated goals of the beach committee is to “preserve local heritage, culture and lifestyle.”
This sounds familiar to Betsch. It’s also pretty much the goal of the American Beach campouts.
Long before Nassau County had the Ritz-Carlton and Amelia Island Plantation and all the other places touted in slick advertising to entice people to visit this area, there was American Beach.
When Betsch gets tired of fighting this latest fight for it, she can think of the 8-month old at that last campout, a girl named Lightning.
She wants Lightning to be able to come here when she’s a grown woman.
She also can think of those who came before, her aunt and a chair that’s in the museum.
“Do you know why she was called the Beach Lady?” she said. “At a certain point in time, she lived on a chaise lounge on the beach. She had other places to stay. She preferred to be outside. And when you go and do it, you totally get it.”
Credit: Source link