Bicycling on Amelia Island: the Franklintown church and cemetery

February 10, 2017

a1a

Florida’s North Coast Highway A1A is one of the nation’s most scenic roads. As it runs through the southern half of Amelia Island, in the northeastern tip of the state, it has much to offer a contemplative cyclotourist. The two-lane highway has well-marked bike lanes, in addition to a bike trail for recreational cyclists. Up-scale residential communities and resorts flourish on both sides of the highway, but the roadway itself is tree-lined, protected from the wind, and restful.

This little stretch of coastal highway also provides the opportunity to delve into the continuing interaction of race, religion, and money in the development of American culture. Part of that story is kept alive by Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street just west of A1A and four miles north of the bridge over Nassau Sound.

The story begins in 1790 when the Robert Harrison family came to the southern tip of Amelia Island and in 1796 received a 600-acre land grant from the Spanish government. Two related families acquired neighboring grants. Each plantation owned slaves, as many as one hundred, to raise crops of rice, cattle, corn, and sea island cotton.

In his 1939 account of old families and plantations of Nassau County, recorded in the WPA Federal Writers’ Program, J. J. G. Cooper wrote that the Harrison plantation had a machine that separated the seed from cotton. His presumption, based on what people told him, was that the planters had learned about this machine from Eli Whitney who had travelled on nearby Cumberland Island in 1790 or 1792.

At the time of the Civil War, the Harrison plantation had grown to 1,000 acres. Union army soldiers swept through the region in 1862, freeing the slaves, but the Harrison family deeded small tracts on the southern edge of the plantation to slaves who remained loyal to the family. Others moved a little to the north and established the community of Franklintown.

frank-placque

In 1880 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Fernandina Beach, the town on the northern part of Amelia Island, organized Franklintown Chapel. Eight years later, Gabriel Means, an ex-slave and Union army soldier, and his wife Edith Drummond Means donated land to the church. In 1892 a small frame building was constructed. In 1949, it was demolished because of highway A1A construction and a new frame church was built.

In 1935 a small group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established American Beach, a residential community with beach access. Their purpose was to provide a place on the ocean for African Americans who could not enjoy public beaches in the segregated south. It was just north of Franklintown and for the next thirty years these two communities lived side by side.

In 1972 a company based on Hilton Head Island bought much of Franklintown and took the initial steps to establish an elaborate ocean-fronting resort and luxury condominiums. The church had to move and was relocated on Lewis Street, near A1A in the northern portion of American Beach. A new brick chapel was constructed and the 1949 frame building was relocated to the new site and serves as the church’s fellowship hall. I am puzzled by the sign posted on this building that refers to the Franklintown Episcopal Methodist Church, which reverses the order of Methodist and Episcopal from the normal title used through history by Methodists in this country.

cem-2I have not yet learned the earlier location of this church, but I have found the original Franklintown cemetery, which is located in Plantation Point, a gated community just south of Lewis Street. On a cul-de-sac of $500,000 homes, there is one vacant lot that provides access to the cemetery. Most of the graves are unmarked, but the purpose of this tiny tract of land is made clear by those that are still identified. I was especially moved by the grave of Ola A. Williams, September 12, 1879 — August 15, 1991.

In her book The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Annette McCollough Myers describes challenges facing American Beach (and Franklintown) because of the influx of wealthy people, most of them white and from other parts of the nation. The people I see while cycling through Franklintown are just like me, white and alien to the territory. Realty reports online describe Franklintown as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.

Perhaps because of the wealth, there also is despair. I talked briefly with one old African American man sitting in the shade near a convenience grocery on A1A, within sight of the church. He sat with his back to the road, staring at the ground, munching on chips from a ripped open bag. His speech was difficult to understand, but over and over again he repeated this simple refrain: “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill myself.”

Myers, Annette McCollough. The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Second Edition (Jacksonville, FL: High-Pitched Hum Publications, 2011). This book describes the history of American Beach from the 1980s through the early 2000s.

Advertisements

Cycling Florida’s Sea Islands

February 18, 2016
Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

A mid-winter sojourn on Amelia Island, Florida, had two purposes: a visit with Mike and Diane, my cycling son and his wife, and vigorous bicycling in preparation for two weeks of even harder cycling events in Arizona. Rainy days, low temperatures, and blustery wind limited the miles I could ride, but made it possible to delve into the geography, history, and culture of this unique little place.

Most of my coastal experience has been in Oregon, where beaches provide a narrow and contested interface of mountains and rocky headlands with the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, I faced a geographical challenge in order to understand the roadways that the north Florida seaboard offers cyclists.

Amelia Island is one of one of a string of small, sandy islands that front the Atlantic Ocean, beginning in South Carolina and extending down the Florida coast. Hilton Head and St. Simons Island are part of this chain. Thirteen miles long and less than four miles wide at its widest point, Amelia is less than half the acreage of Hilton Head. It is separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River, and from the Florida mainland by the Amelia River and Nassau Sound.

Immediately north of the St. Mary’s River is Cumberland Island and south of Nassau sound are Big Talbot, Little Talbot, and Ft. George’s Islands. Together with Amelia Island, they are sometimes called the Sea Islands. South of Ft. George’s Island, the St. John’s River, Florida’s longest waterway, reaches the Atlantic. It is part of an inland lagoon system made possible by the barrier islands which, as sea levels dropped long ago, “became an obstacle that prevented water from flowing east to the ocean” (St. John’s River Water Management District).

Amelia Island is long and narrow and one arterial highway, Florida’s coastal highway A1A, runs its full length. Only a few miles from its northern terminus, A1A crosses the Amelia River near the widest part of the island, travels north a short distance to the deep harbor and historic town of Fernandina Beach, and crosses over to the Atlantic. After hugging the beach for several miles, it angles inland and continues south, leaving Amelia on a bridge over Nassau Sound.

During Amelia Island’s earlier history, A1A provided access to communities that have long been important to African-Americans. Since World War II, expensive resorts and condominiums have become the most prominent features of this stretch of highway.

For ten miles on Amelia Island and another fifteen as it continues south over the three smaller Sea Islands, this highway provides delightful cycling: smooth surfaces, good bike lanes, and virtually no elevation gain or loss. Much of the highway travels through wooded, swampy countryside, with the ocean beaches out of sight.

Big Talbot Sign

Part of Amelia and virtually all of the lower islands are state parks, which makes the cycling even more pleasing, especially to an out-of-shape cyclist like me. Recreational cyclists prefer the off-road bike trail that parallels A1A much of this distance.

With Mike and by myself, I bicycled along this corridor several times, staying on the highway bike lanes, and became acquainted with some of the history of Amelia Island, especially that of American Beach, which for several generations was a nationally important haven for African Americans who were suffering under segregation laws and customs. In another blog, where I review An American Beach for African Americans by Marsha Dean Phelts, I have described this part of my cycling experience.

Cyclists cannot help but pay attention to the string of expensive resort and residential communities on Amelia. Not only have they encroached upon long-existing African American sections of the island, but they have brought large numbers of winter residents, vacationers, and permanent residents. The character of the island is changing.

My contact with this new population took place at the Starbucks a mile from my son’s home, south of Fernandina Beach and north of American Beach and the new resort communities. It is the one new-style coffee shop on the island that I have seen, and in the mornings when I and my computer spent time there, the people I met were mostly my age, white, and from places like Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Like me, some of them value the New York Times and its “New York values,” but unlike me they seem to have little interest in the distinctive history of this part of the American South.

During my two weeks in the Sea Islands, I rode 275 miles at a pace that pushed my conditioning forward, thus fulfilling my needs as aggressive cylist. What pleases me even more is that a new part of America, previously unknown to me, has been revealed, so that my identity as contemplative cyclist is growing stronger, too. I’m sure that I’ll be back!

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island