Skip to main content

Amelia Islander

A Piece of History

Jun 10, 2016 02:49PM
In late January, an American Beach Day Celebration was held at the American Beach Community Center, which included the unveiling of a historic marker commemorating the first house built on American Beach. The house, located at 5466 Gregg Street, was built in 1935, the same year that American Beach was established when the Afro-American Life Insurance Company purchased 33 acres of land there with a 1,000 foot shoreline. The home was built for the president of the company, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, by local African American ship builder, William S. Rivers. Lewis was one of the original founders in 1901 of Jacksonville’s Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He was a man with little formal education who became a world traveler, visionary investor, philanthropist, and Florida’s first African American millionaire. His home was the very first built on American Beach. “His home was completed on August 24, 1935,” says Marsha Phelts, an American Beach resident. “It was paid in full. Mr. Lewis lived in the house for two years, and then his son lived there until 1975.” The A.L. Lewis House has a rectangular plan with a front-facing gable roof. The exterior of the house is covered with a stucco finish. The term “Masonry Vernacular” applies to buildings that display no formal style of architecture and it is defined as the common masonry or frame construction techniques of self-taught builders. Two years after the house was built, Rivers constructed a second home next door, and Lewis’s son, James Henry Lewis, became the owner of the first house. The original home was purchased in 1986 by Jack James of Jacksonville. The second home was occupied by the Lewis family until it was sold by his widow, Elzona Burney Lewis Nobileo. The home is currently owned by a family from Waycross, Georgia. The African American resort community of American Beach was established in 1935 in defiance of segregation and the prevailing Jim Crow laws of that era. When first mapped out, the streets of American Beach were named for the Afro’s founders and their families. Encompassing 216 acres, American Beach became known as “The Negro Ocean Playground,” a place for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” As the numbers of visitors grew, businesses sprang up providing food, lodging and entertainment. Performers who appeared at American Beach during its heyday include Duke Ellington and other popular musicians of the 1940s and ‘50s. In 1964, Hurricane Dora devastated the area, destroying homes and businesses. In the 1970s, one of Lewis’ great granddaughters, MaVynee Betsch, a.k.a., The Beach Lady, lived in the Lewis house and fought to protect the community’s heritage from beachfront development. The American Beach Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, with the Lewis house as a contributing structure. The American Beach Museum preserves the memories and memorabilia of several generations of African American residents and visitors to American Beach. The museum pays tribute to A. L. Lewis, the American Beach community, and MaVynee’s legacy. For more information about the American Beach Museum and the historic Lewis house, visit www.americanbeachmuseum.org. The museum is located at 1600 Julia Street. They are open Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m.