During our stay on Amelia Island, we visited the A.L. Lewis Museum, which was a visit I had been so anxiously awaiting. The museum is only open Friday through Sunday. This museum tells the story of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire, and how he helped his community to thrive during the Jim Crow era through his philanthropic efforts. If you read my blog on Coast One Tours, you read about how self sufficient American Beach was for African Americans during the years of segregation. Because of the efforts of Mr. Lewis, his community built beautiful homes on the beach, vacationed on the beach with “rest and relaxation without humiliation,” and were able to purchase homes with money borrowed from A.L. Lewis’s pension from the company he founded. This museum gives you a deeper look into his family life and the history of how American Beach began.
Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole, the first African American female president of Spelman College stood in front of this museum the night before we visited. Upon our arrival, I spoke to the sweet ladies at the front desk of the museum, and they said, “Where were you last night? You should have been here. The kids would have loved it!” Dr. Cole spoke to a group that gathered at the museum. During this meeting, they showcased a handbag, which was created by a Spelman graduate. The bag is fittingly named, “The Johnetta.” The beautiful handbag can be purchased here. If you click the link, you’ll see Dr. Cole standing where I am standing the evening before I visited the museum. I was so upset that I didn’t get to see Dr. Cole. That would have been the cherry on top. One of her family friends works at the museum and was there to greet us. She told me that Dr. Cole was going to be coming to the museum to bring her car back, and she said I could see her if I stuck around a while. Well, I have two kiddos who got a little antsy while I walked through the museum. They finished their tour and were ready to go, so we ended up leaving immediately after I finished taking everything in. Maybe I’ll get to see Dr. Cole the next time we are on the island.
I graduated from an HBCU, Southern University and A & M College, but I visited Spelman College numerous times during the 90’s when Dr. Cole was president. I have several cousins who attended Spelman, and one of them attended Spelman during Dr. Cole’s tenure. Ironically, Dr. Cole is A.L. Lewis’s great granddaughter. Dr. Cole is also the younger sister of MaVynee Betsch, an environmentalist and activist who fought hard to preserve the history of American Beach.
MaVynee Betsch (aka The Beach Lady) had a 7 foot long ponytail that was preserved after her death and is now on display in the museum. She graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and toured Europe as a renowned opera singer for several years. We owe much of the preservation of the history of American Beach to her. Read more about her fascinating life and the causes she fought for here.
There is so much to say about this visit to the museum. There is a guided tour via audio that you can listen to as you walk through the museum. There is also audio and video of MaVynee Betsch singing, which was absolutely beautiful. You can also watch a film at the end of your tour, which shows footage of MaVynee Betsch on American Beach.
My next blog will be on Kingsley Plantation, which is a rather unique story. A.L. Lewis married the plantation owner’s great granddaughter, Mary Frances Sammis. She was the great-granddaughter of the white slave trader Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and Anna Madgigine Jai, a formerly enslaved African woman from Senegal. Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole and her sister, MaVynee Betsch, are also the descendants of Zephaniah and Anna Madgigine Jai. We visited Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. You’ll have to Google the the Kingsleys to learn about the interesting history of this plantation. Until next time…happy travels!