Vanishing Black Americana
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Last week we were scheduled to be in Martha’s Vineyard, but of course, Covid-19 wouldn't let us be great and get on a plane.
Itching for some #vitaminsea (socially distant of course) and a getaway since we’ve been quarantining for the last five months, we spontaneously decided to take the six-hour drive from Atlanta to Amelia Island - one of the barrier islands on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Never satisfied to just sit on the beach at the resort - it was nice, but if you know me, you know I crave awesome and meaningful experiences - we decided to move a bit north to get a glimpse of THE BLACK BEACH – American Beach.
Historic American Beach
One of nine sites along the African-American Heritage Trail, American Beach is a historic district that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It is described by the AmericanBeachMusem.org as:
“Home to the largest dune system on the Atlantic Coast in Florida, American Beach has a rich history as a vacation destination that served the African-American community during the days of segregation in the South.
The driving force behind the conception of American Beach was Abraham Lincoln Lewis, one of the original founders in 1901 of Jacksonville, Florida’s Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Lewis was a man with little formal education who became a world traveler, visionary investor, philanthropist, and Florida’s first African American millionaire. 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 number 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 ‘40s and ‘50s.
The changes that came with integration signaled the demise of that idyllic moment in time. Initially, a summer vacation community attracting visitors from throughout the South, American Beach today has many year-‘round residents and visitors from all points of the compass. Now half, its original size due to land lost over the years to development, current property owners, preservationists, and historians are united to preserve the heritage and the land. The American Beach Museum, through objects, photographs, and video documentation, stands as an anchor for those efforts.”
Vanishing Black Americana
Unfortunately, the museum was closed due to Covid, so we didn’t get an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the history and artifacts of the area. We did, however, spend a little time people-watching on American Beach and then slowly drove streets that front the beach taking pictures of the plaques that surround this historic area.
While rolling through the area, I saw an older black gentleman who was sitting on his front porch on Gregg Street near Burney just watching life go by. Somehow, I could tell he lived in the area for a long time. In fact, his house looked like it was going to collapse around him.
Anxious to get his perspective on the area, I hopped out of the car to ask him about the history of the area and whether there were still black families that owned the surrounding real estate. He was reluctant to share much, but I was happy to hear him say that the immediate beachfront area is still occupied primarily by black families, despite a lot of land being lost over the years to development specifically by Ritz Carlton, The Omni, and other commercial and private developers. YES, I said BEACHFRONT!!! That’s a big deal! Y’all know that many black folks have given up their very valuable land to developers at the first mention of a measly five-figure check.
As excited as I was to hear that the area is still primarily “Black Owned”, I couldn’t help but notice that the upkeep of community has been ignored, with some homes not touched in decades, lots of vacant lots, and no black businesses to note as the nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants that used to rock with activity all summer night are now boarded up. All that appears to remain is just a sprinkling of recently renovated homes that dot the area.
As I sit here reflecting on the fact that we were supposed to be in Martha’s Vineyard - the Mecca for Black vacationers especially in August- socializing with what Lawrence Otis Graham classifies as the black elite....but somehow end up in one of the only other six historically black vacation enclaves that feel anything but that - I can’t help but wonder why American Beach as not attracted the gravitas and prominence that Martha’s Vineyard or even Sag Harbor has? Especially, with travelers in the south? Surely, it’s a lot easier and quicker to get to?
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are affluent black families who own summer homes there, but somehow the community lacks the esteem and mass appeal that Martha’s Vineyard does. I read that there are fewer than 25 year-round families, and according to some American Beach doesn’t even make an appearance on many Florida maps. WHY is that?
Given the historic nature of the area, the proximity to many HBCUs as well as a large number of black civic organizations with chapters in the surrounding states, why has American Beach not remained “The Negro Ocean Playground”….a place for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation”? Is this a vanishing part of our Americana?
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the continued fight for racial justice around the globe, I encourage you to stop through American Beach if you’re ever in the Jacksonville area. It’s extremely important that we support and celebrate the strides that our ancestors fought so hard to create and maintain.
And while you’re there, donate to AmericanBeachMyseum.org to help preserve the heritage and land of such an important place in our American history!
Additional cultural experiences in Jacksonville
Besides laying out on the wide stretch of American Beach, here are a few other cultural experiences to enjoy while you're in Jacksonville.
Visit the last remaining Black School House in Jacksonville. Located at the grounds of the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society, the St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse for African American Children dates back to 1898.
Visit Jacksonville's first black suburbs. Laid out in the 1930s, Durkeeville (www.durkeevillehistoricalsociety.org) lies northwest of Downtown. It was the center of commerce and culture for the local black community during the first decades of the 20th century. Today, the Durkeeville Historical Society maintains a museum (by appointment only) that walks visitors through the area's unique history.
See where Hank Aaron got his first big break. One of three players to break the color barrier in the regional minor leagues, the famed right-fielder made a splash with the then-Jacksonville Braves at historic Durkee Field, now known as the J.P. Small Memorial Stadium.
See the five Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sites in Jacksonville. Explore the five places where Dr. King spent time while traveling through Jacksonville.