Reviewing An American Beach for African Americans, by Marsha Dean Phelts (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997)
Amelia Island is the northeastern-most tip of Florida, separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River. From the earliest period of European activity, this thirteen-mile long barrier island experienced interaction, often serious conflict, between differing groups of people: Native American vs. European, Spanish explorers vs. English and French, slave owners vs. slaves, European Americans vs. African Americans, North vs. South, established families vs. vacationers
My interest in Amelia Island’s history developed during a two-week cycling and family vacation, and Marsha Dean Phelts’ book about a community on the southern part of the island became a source of information and insight.
Amelia Island’s sheltered, deep water port and its separation from but nearness to Florida’s mainland and the American South attracted seafarers of all kinds. Its commercial and residential activities were centered in the town of Fernandina Beach, at one time a center for the slave trade and a location for importing African slaves even after the practice had been outlawed by the United States.
Amelia was also a productive agricultural site. In 1796, Samuel Harrison applied for a land grant for property on the island that he had homesteaded, including a 700-acre site at the mouth of the Nassau River.
Despite President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves on Amelia Island did not gain freedom until the arrival of Union soldiers during the war. In 1865, Major General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which reserved land for the settlement of Negro communities. This order set apart the “islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, . . .for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States” (Phelts, p. 15).
Former slaves on the Harrison Plantation were able to acquire land and eke out a living by farming. They clustered in in a self-sufficient community named Franklin Town. This little community had its own school and a Methodist Church, which still is functioning.
Segregation laws during the Jim Crow era, allowed Black Americans on public beaches only as employees of whites, and they were not allowed to engage in recreational activities. Much of this was to change because of the vision and work of Abraham Lincoln Lewis (1865-1947) and his wife Mary Sammis, who was the great-granddaughter of another barrier island planter, the controversial Zephaniah Kingsley and his Senegalese wife Anna Jai.
With six other men at the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville, he founded the Afro-American Industrial and Benefit Association (later renamed the Afro-American Insurance Company). The company and its staff prospered, and Lewis decided to establish a community at the beach where African-Americans could come with freedom and without humiliation.
He and his colleagues settled on Amelia Island. It was reasonable close to Jacksonville, land could be acquired, and they could develop it according to principles that they chose for themselves rather than those dictated by the dominant, white society. They acquired a tract of land, with 1,000 feet of beach frontage, and in 1935 established American Beach.
Lewis and his colleagues and friends built houses and the community prospered. American Beach became a haven and destination point for African Americans all over the country. Some of the nation’s most celebrated figures in business, education, religion, and the entertainment world came to American Beach during its years of greatest prominence.
The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 made it possible for African Americans to use all of the public beaches that formerly had been closed to them, which reduced some of the reasons for going to this haven. Immediately thereafter Hurricane Dora damaged many structures, again changing the dynamics of life in American Beach. In recent decades the encroachment of costly privately owned resort and condominium communities has also changed the social dynamics on this part of Amelia Island. Even so, American Beach continues to be a significant beacon for African-American history and life.
During her childhood Marsha Dean Phelts’ family vacationed here and in 1997, when she published her book, she lived in American Beach. Her historical account is one of the book’s values, but equally interesting is her enthusiastic presentation of the human side of the experience, both the highs and the lows.
In the latter part of the book Phelts intertwines stories of American Beach families with their favorite recipes. ”Daddy Charlie’s Jamaican Con Pollo, with chicken, shrimp, ham, and boiled blue crabs, I could imagine eating, but not Super Bowl Pork Pot, with its twenty-nine pounds of of small pig ears, hog maws, pig tails and pig feet.
When she published this book, Phelts was a school librarian and a librarian in the Genealogical Department of the Jacksonville Public Library. Two decades have passed since then, but this is one of the best guides to Amelia Island’s history and continuing importance.