Many Threads, One Tapestry

Many Threads, One Tapestry

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melia Island is a community built by diverse peoples. Since the early 18th century, the island has seen eight different flags flown over it throughout its history, earning it the well-deserved nickname “the Isle of Eight Flags.” Since the French first reached these shores to encounter the native Timucuans, they have been followed by the Spanish, the English, pirates and bootleggers, adventurers, fisherman and growers, Confederate soldiers, Union troops, Victorian-era tourists, 20th-century snowbirds, and many others drawn to our warm climate and unspoiled beaches.

In addition to the waves of newcomers, Fernandina was also blessed with a natural deepwater harbor, making it a busy port and a crossroads for ships from around the globe. According to Gino Litrico, patriarch of an old local fishing family and president of the former Trigger-Net Company, “When you were down at the docks, there were languages spoken from all over the world. In Fernandina Beach, we have people from many races, cultures, and walks of life. That’s what makes our island so special.”

However, one group of people did not come to these shores by choice. Instead, they were ripped from their African communities against their will, split off from their families and everything they knew, and shipped across the ocean in horrific conditions to be sold as slaves to America.

“When Thomas Jefferson outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, New England slaving families reregistered their ships under the Spanish flag and brought their cargos to Florida to be smuggled across the border into Georgia,” states writer and journalist Russ Rymer in his book, American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory. “Fernandina’s traffic in ‘new’ Africans became intense—its harbor sometimes hosted three hundred square-riggers at a time.”

Even though African-Americans didn’t come here by choice, they have contributed mightily to the history and culture of Amelia Island, and to our understanding of ourselves, helping us forge our unique community tapestry out of many disparate threads. Here is a look at part of their story on Amelia Island.

Kingsley Plantation

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people came to Florida. Some sought to make their fortunes by obtaining land and establishing plantations. Others were forced to come to Florida to work on those plantations, their labor providing wealth to the people who owned them. Some of the enslaved would later become free landowners, struggling to keep their footing in a dangerous time of shifting alliances and politics. All of these people played a part in the history of Kingsley Plantation.

Among those striving for freedom and security in Spanish Florida was Anna Kingsley. Anna was the African wife of plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley. At an early age, she survived the Middle Passage and dehumanizing slave markets to become the property of Kingsley. After manumission by her husband, Anna became a landowner and slaveholder. She raised her four children while managing a plantation that utilized African slave labor. She survived brutal changes in race policies and social attitudes brought by successive governments in Florida, and her survival demanded difficult, often dangerous, choices. With an enslaved work force of about 60, the Fort George plantation produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, and corn.

“Florida’s Spanish colonists encouraged and legally sanctioned interracial marriage,” Rymer goes on to say in his book. “There were numbers of freed blacks in the area, and some of them owned plantations and slaves, and found acceptance in white society.”

Colored Troops at Fort Clinch

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States,” it declared, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It also declared that “such persons (that is, African-American men) of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States.” For the first time, black soldiers could fight for the U.S. Army.

The First South Carolina Volunteers was a Union Army regiment during the Civil War which was composed of escaped slaves from South Carolina and Florida. It was one of the first black regiments in the Union Army, and it served time at Fort Clinch. “This unit received a lot of attention under the leadership of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a supporter of John Brown,” says Frank Ofeldt, Fort Clinch State Park historian. “The regiment participated in a military expedition from Beaufort up the St. Marys River. Eventually, the designation of the regiment changed to the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops on February 8, 1864.”

Even as they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, African-American Union soldiers were fighting against another injustice as well. The U.S. Army paid black soldiers $10 a week (minus a clothing allowance, in some cases), while white soldiers got $3 more (plus a clothing allowance, in some cases). Congress passed a bill authorizing equal pay for black and white soldiers in 1864.

By the time the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most, about 90,000, were former or “contraband” slaves from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free blacks from the North. Forty thousand black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection.

American Beach: A Ray of Hope for African Americans

American Beach was founded in 1935 by one of Florida’s first black millionaires, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company during his presidency. The plan was for his employees to have a place to vacation and own homes for their families by the shore.

Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, summers at American Beach were busy with families, churches and children. The beach included hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs, as well as homes and other businesses. American Beach played host to numerous celebrities during this period, including Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Daniels, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, and many more. James Brown was actually turned away from performing outside Evans’ Rendezvous, a nightclub on the beach.

Marsha Dean Phelts remembers fondly her family’s retreat on American Beach the first two weeks in July each year and writes of her experience in her book, An American Beach for African Americans. “For us, going to American Beach was the equivalent of going to Disney World today, in terms of popularity and prestige,” she writes. “It was a place where dreams came true just by being there, the place for family gatherings or community get-togethers, the place to see and gape at the prominent personalities of the community.” Phelts and her brothers, Charles and Kenneth, enjoyed crabbing, fishing, and collecting shells during their two-week vacation.

“At low tide, we delighted by filling our sieves with donax, tiny coquina clams, easy to gather by the thousands as they lay on top of the sand—purple, orange, blue, yellow, pink, and white,” she writes. “After slurping bowls of donax broth, we used the shells to create mosaics on driftwood or poster board to take back home.”

In 1964, American Beach was hit hard by Hurricane Dora, and many homes and buildings were destroyed. The passage of the Civil Rights Act that same year desegregated the beaches of Florida, and American Beach became a less and less popular vacation destination as more African Americans from Jacksonville turned to beaches closer to their homes.

The Legacy of the Beach Lady

MaVynee Betsch, known to locals as the Beach Lady, returned from a long career as an opera singer to American Beach in 1977 to fight for its preservation. For years, she planted trees along Lewis Street, offered historical tours of the beach, and fought to raise public awareness of the beach and its struggle until her death September 2005. She wanted to make American Beach a monument to black Americans’ determination to overcome the obstacles of the Jim Crow era. Since January 2001, American Beach has been listed as a historic site by the National Register of Historic Places.

Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida, into one of the preeminent black families in the South. Her parents were Mary and John Betsch, and she was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis and Mary Kingsley Sammis, the great-granddaughter of Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley. She was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1955, she moved to Europe, where she became an opera singer.

Upon her return to American Beach, the Beach Lady made fast friends and instant enemies as she fought for the preservation of her beloved American Beach. “Crackers lounging in front of the ammunition store and rednecks passing in pickups trucks would give her a nod or a wave or stop to tell her they did or didn’t agree with her most recent letter to the editor,” writes Rymer. “They called her MaVynee or Miss Betsch, or Beach Lady. She would yell back, ‘Hey! Hey!’ and give them a wave or thumbs up, and a score of bracelets would ripple and chime on her forearm.” The Beach Lady gave her life savings, some $750,000, to sixty environmental organizations and causes, ten of which she was a lifetime member.

Peck High School and the Peck Center

The groundwork for Peck High School began in 1880, when a group led by Henry B. Delaney petitioned for an African-American school in Fernandina. In 1885, a four-room building known as Colored School No. 1 opened at Atlantic Avenue and 11th Street. Moses H. Payne, a Howard University graduate, became the first principal and teacher that same year. William H. Peck, also a Howard graduate, joined Payne in Fernandina in 1887, and served as assistant principal.

Following Payne’s death in 1888, Peck was promoted to principal, a position he held until 1931. Professor Peck developed the high school’s curriculum and graduated its first class in 1891. In 1909, a four-acre parcel was purchased on South 10th Street to build a larger school.

Peck tenaciously gathered support from within the community and from the Rosenwald Foundation, a program for African-American school construction funded by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Co. In 1911, the school was renamed in Peck’s honor. Peck High School was completed in 1927, serving grades 1-12. Peck, who died in 1950 and is buried at Bosque Bello Cemetery, was widely respected in the community and recognized in the state’s Great Floridians 2000 program.

As one of the oldest African American high schools in the state, Peck High School was the center of the African American community and a source of pride. Used for classes in the day, the school served as a meeting place for community groups in the evening. In later years, adult education and industrial skills were also offered.

Teachers were an integral part of the fabric of the community and embraced their roles with great pride and commitment, understanding that they were educating students, families, and a community. When schools in Fernandina were desegregated in 1969, Peck was closed. Students were integrated into other schools, and by 1976, the building was vacant.

Recognizing the impact the deteriorating building had on the spirit of an entire community, a diverse group including Ellie Colburn, Elmo Myers, Charles Albert, and Willie Mae Ashley began the campaign to save Peck High. In the 1990s, state grants and the City of Fernandina Beach funded its restoration, and it reopened as the Peck Center. The center houses non-profit groups, city offices, and hosts recreational activities and special events, making it possible for Peck to celebrate its past while continuing to serve the community. The Peck High School building serves as a significant component of the story of African-American heritage in Fernandina Beach.

The African American community of Amelia Island celebrates its heritage each month with an African Arts & Culture Marketplace on the second Saturday of each month at the American Beach Museum, featuring cultural arts vendors, food vendors, yoga and meditation sessions, fun-filled games, music, movies, and more.

The American Beach Museum on Amelia Island remembers the historic African American journey of vision, struggle, joy, and triumph, and celebrates the preservation of this historic site. Photographs, text, artifacts, videography, and a unique display on the legacy of MaVynee Oshun Betsch, “The Beach Lady,” recount the beach’s history and preservation. The American Beach Museum is located at 1600 Julia Street. For more information about the Marketplace, Museum hours, and special events, call (904) 510-7036 or visit www.americanbeachmuseum.org.