MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)

She was an African-American opera singer who thrilled European audiences in the 1950s.  But to most in her adopted home on Amelia Island, Florida, she was just the “Beach Lady.”  The lives of music lovers and environmentalists all benefitted from her untiring passion and persistence.

Mavynee Betsch (photo by Fernandina Observer)O

MaVynee Oshun Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on January 13, 1935.  Her family was part of the African-American elite of Jacksonville.  Her great-grandfather was Abraham Lincoln Lewis, owner of the Afro American Insurance Company, which he founded in 1901.  Lewis was one of the successful businessmen who built the African-American community of Jacksonville, a parallel universe required by the Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation in many southern states.

Coming from a wealthy and cultured family, Betsch had the opportunity to study music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.  After graduating in 1955 with majors in voice and piano, she moved to Europe and studied voice in Paris and London.  She toured Europe as an opera singer for seven years, singing mostly for German audiences.

In the year she was born, her great grandfather made a daring business and social investment.  Using the Pension Bureau of his insurance company, Lewis bought 33 acres of Amelia Island waterfront and established the community of American Beach.  Later he bought more acreage, expanding American Beach to 216 acres.  His idea was to make a place where African-Americans could enjoy the beach—a place for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

American Beach became a destination for African-American vacationers from across the country.  There they could enjoy an outdoor experience without worry of the harassment and violence of the Jim Crow era.  American Beach became the place to go.  The waterfront pavilion welcomed the nation’s most prominent African-American entertainers, including Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Duke Ellington.

American Beach was the place to go for African Americans before the 1960s

In the mid-1960s, the prominence of American Beach began to decline.  With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, segregation was outlawed.  African-Americans began vacationing at other beach locations, from Miami to Atlantic City.  Also in 1964, Hurricane Dora tore through the community, destroying homes and businesses, many of which never recovered.

About this time, Betsch tired of the diva’s life and returned home.  She loved American Beach and, from 1975 onwards, made its preservation her life’s work.  She also understood that places like American Beach, a natural haven in an industrializing world, were necessary everywhere.  She became a dedicated environmentalist, donating her entire fortune, estimated at $750,000, to environmental causes.

She was not only dedicated, but also somewhat eccentric.  She gave up her home and began living on the beach, spending her days sitting in a lawn chair and telling her story to passers-by.  She grew her hair long—seven feet long and gathered in a huge bun atop her head and draped over her arm—to demonstrate that nature didn’t need help to grow beautiful things.  She grew the fingernails on her left hand to prove the same point, the nails making an 18-inch spiral at one point.  Her clothes were covered in political buttons that espoused her commitment to the environment and social justice.  She especially appealed to children:  “They come to see my hair, and I give ‘em a little history.”

The sand dune known as “Nana”, American Beach (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Her efforts for conservation have paid off.  A portion of American Beach is the NaNa sand dune, the tallest in Florida.  Because of her persistent efforts, the development company that owned the dune transferred it to the National Park Service and it is now preserved as part of the Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve.  Another of her dreams was to create a center to tell the natural and human history of American Beach—so future generations would understand the Jim Crow era and what it meant to the lives of African-Americans.  That dream became reality in 2014, when the American Beach Museum opened.

MaVynee Betsch died from cancer in 2005.  She was a unique person, without question, who made significant contributions to conservation.  But she is not widely known, illustrating our need to more fully develop and chronicle the diversity of the environmental movement and the contributions of African-Americans to that movement.  Had it not been for my conversations with noted African-American environmentalist Carolyn Finney (author of Black Faces, White Spaces), I would not have known to include her in this chronology.  But at least one person took note:  The Dalai Lama named her an “Unsung Hero of Compassion” just after her death in 2005.

The Amelia Island History Museum, where the legacy of “The Beach Lady” is proudly displayed (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Betsch once left this message on her voicemail:  “Hello.  This is the Beach Lady.  If you’re getting this message, it may be because I have turned into a butterfly and floated out over the sand dune.”  And that sand dune remains because the Beach Lady made us keep it!

References:

BlackPast.org.  American Beach, Jacksonville, Florida (1936- ).  Available at:  http://www.blackpast.org/aah/american-beach-jacksonville-florida-1936.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

Florida Times-Union.  2005.  MaVynee Betsch.  Available at:  http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/timesunion/obituary.aspx?pid=15022945.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

Gullan/Geechee Nation.  2015.  The Beach Lady MaVynee Betsch:  Gullah/Geechee Sacred Ancestor.  Available at:  https://gullahgeecheenation.com/2015/01/13/the-beach-lady-mavynee-betsch-gullahgeechee-sacred-ancestor/.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

HistoryMakers.  MaVynee “Beach Lady” Betsch.  Available at:  http://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/mavynee-beach-lady-betsch-39.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

National Park Service.  Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/ambch.htm.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

Rymer, Russ.  2003.  Beach Lady.  Smithsonain Magazine, June 2003.  Available at:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/beach-lady-84237022/.  Accessed January 12, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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