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.
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.
I 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.