Updated: Sep 7, 2022
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on September 17, 2018
The little girl in the beach resort picture is Claudia Rose Watkins. She is my daughter.
This photograph was taken on a vacation trip we took to Amelia Island Plantation resort on Amelia Island, Florida. Claudia was nearly six-years-old when this picture was snapped and I thought it was time for her introduction to an important part of African-American history.
While touring Amelia Island, I showed Claudia an area called American Beach. I explained American Beach’s remarkable history in American society.
American Beach is a pristine 33-acre beach front area located between the Summer Beach resort, a 450-acre complex that includes homes, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and seven condominium buildings to the north and Amelia Island Plantation, a 1,330-acre resort and residential community that includes a hotel and two condominium buildings to the south.
Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a black entrepreneur and insurance company owner, developed American Beach for African-Americans during the era of Jim Crow racial segregation. At the time, beaches across the South were designated “For Whites Only” because white men did not want black men and boys to see white women and girls clad in swimsuits. Any black man or boy who looked at a white woman or girl clad in a swimsuit was at risk of being lynched.
“American Beach, the only beach in Florida that welcomed black Americans and offered safe, secure overnight accommodations during Jim Crow segregation, was founded in 1935 by the Afro-American Life Insurance Company (AALIC), which was established in 1901 to provide the Jacksonville, Florida black community with life insurance. The firm’s Afro-American Pension Bureau purchased a 33-acre piece of property at the beach on nearby Amelia Island, partly as an investment but also to provide it as a resort area for black Floridians who had been excluded from other beaches. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the President of Afro-American Life, ironically named the area American Beach because he and others felt that in the United States beach access should be open to everyone.
Lewis and his partners envisioned a resort that would signify success, self-sufficiency, and respectability for middle-class African American families from Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. In addition to having beach access, the planned community also allowed for the building of resort and retirement homes. Surveyed and platted on March 12, 1936, the original section of the beach property was added to the US National Register of Historic Places on January 28, 2002 as being worthy of historic preservation and marker designation.
Florida’s first black millionaires and largest landowners established homes there and encouraged other blacks to build homes and create the small businesses that they often dreamed of owning. Between the late 1930s and the 1950s, tourists traveled for miles to frequent this black-owned oasis, passing dozens of resorts that were off limits to them, as made evident by the “For Whites Only” signs.
Eventually, prominent entertainers made their way to the famous seaside pavilion that, over the years, hosted musicians like Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and Duke Ellington. For nearly three decades, American Beach thrived as an all-black recreational beach resort whose population swelled greatly in the summer months.
With the advent of integration, the beach lost customers to other resorts that were now open to African Americans. Nature, however, played a role in American Beach’s decline as well. In 1964 Hurricane Dora destroyed many homes and businesses and owners either would not or could not afford to rebuild. Consequently, like similar resorts across the nation, American Beach residents often abandoned or sold their properties—or, if they were not property owners, simply stopped visiting.
Nonetheless a small loyal group of multigenerational American Beach families kept their properties and, by the 1980s, attracted a new wave of prominent owners including tennis star Leslie Allen, TV actress Barbara Montgomery, and Emory University professor Eugene Emory. Prominent educator Johnnetta Cole also encouraged the revival of the resort. She and her sister, MaVynee Betsch, known locally as the Beach Lady because of her long residence in American Beach, have established the A.L. Lewis Historical Society (as a tribute to their great-grandfather who is the founder of the community) and have developed the American Beach Museum to preserve the beach community’s unusual history.”
Today, Claudia is a grown woman with an international circle of friends and a bright future in global business. Remarkably, American Beach still exists, but it is experiencing a transition. The modest vacation homes from the 1930s share space with vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and newer, more elegant structures.
Though small in area, American Beach continues to play an important role in African-American history.
PHOTO: Donald V. Watkins and Claudia Rose Watkins vacationing on Amelia Island, Florida. (Circa Summer of 2000)