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‘Beach Lady’ Triumphed Over Tide of Development

Times Staff Writer

On her answering machine, she was still greeting callers in the warm, sonorous voice that once was schooled to sing Strauss and Puccini, but which for years cajoled, hectored and scolded neighbors and others into saving an endangered piece of American and black history.

“If I’m not here, guess what?” MaVynee Oshun Betsch asks playfully in her recorded message. “It’s because I’ve evolved into a butterfly and I’m flying down on the beach.”

The woman who called herself the “Beach Lady” died this month at the age of 70 after a long battle with stomach cancer. In a front-page obituary, one local newspaper eulogized her as the most famous resident of Florida’s northernmost Atlantic Coast.

More than a week after Betsch’s death, the head of Florida’s Nassau County Commission grew teary as she spoke of the flamboyant activist who grew her hair into 7-foot-long dreadlocks, adored orange lipstick and nail polish, and altered her given name (Marvyne) to delete the “r” in protest of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

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“She was an inspiration to me, her passion and her love,” Commissioner Ansley Acree said. “I don’t think I’ve dealt with her death yet.” After drying her eyes, Acree said she was keeping two of Betsch’s cellphone messages as mementos.

A professed black, radical eco-feminist, Betsch left a greater legacy than phone recordings: protection from encroaching development for some of what was once called “America’s Negro Ocean Playground.” In 1935, the year Betsch was born, her great-grandfather A.L. Lewis helped found American Beach, about a half-hour’s drive north of Jacksonville, Fla. It was intended to be an ocean-side oasis where people of color could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”

On a stretch of shoreline that rises to a gentle bluff, where sand dunes are anchored by feathery sea oats, Lewis bought 200 acres and sold lots to employees of his company, the Afro-American Life Insurance Co., and other African Americans who sought a vacation spot in the sun.

In the era of Jim Crow laws, few public beaches in Florida or the rest of the South were open to blacks. From the Depression until well into the 1960s, American Beach served as a holiday and vacation destination for thousands of African Americans, and was a magnet for black celebrities such as entertainers Cab Calloway and Ray Charles, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and writer Zora Neale Hurston.

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But in 1964, the area began to decline. Hurricane Dora destroyed much of the beach, and passage of the Civil Rights Act meant that blacks were no longer restricted to segregated beaches and the businesses that catered to them.

“We lost the black economy when we gained civil rights, and it has not returned,” Marsha Dean Phelts said. A retired Jacksonville librarian who began vacationing at American Beach at the age of 4, Phelts has lived here year-round for about two years. She is the author of “An American Beach for African Americans,” a history of the community.

As black devotion to American Beach waned, large golf resorts and rows of high-rise condominiums sprouted to the north and south. Of the 200-acre tract Betsch’s great-grandfather acquired, about half was gobbled up by development, including a gated community and golf course. Of American Beach’s lots and homes remaining in private hands, about 80% still belongs to blacks. But no more than a handful of homes belong to the families of the original buyers.

“There was a time that to see somebody white, you had to get out of town,” Phelts said. “Now black faces on the ocean are in the minority.”

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Saving what remained of the old American Beach became the life’s work of Betsch, an eccentric, colorful and captivating presence. She could make a shopping trip to Wal-Mart as theatrical an event as a red-carpet movie premiere, Peri Frances of Atlanta recalled of her 6-foot-tall aunt. A 1955 graduate of Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Betsch studied voice in Paris and performed opera -- including “Madame Butterfly” and her signature role, Richard Strauss’ “Salome” -- in Germany.

In 1965, she came home from Europe. Five years later, she moved to American Beach, where she spent holidays as a child. For a time, she slept on the beach. The settlement, she wrote, became “my sacred place.”

Others were involved in the preservation effort, including some of the local homeowners and the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities safeguard recreational and historic sites. But the former opera singer is generally acknowledged to have been the sparkplug and dynamo.

She gave guided beach tours to deepen public awareness of this place’s importance in African American history. Until the county towed away a broken recreational vehicle, it housed a makeshift museum she created about American Beach.

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“MaVynee was so persistent in pushing the community and pushing nationally,” Phelts said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) once called her “a recognized leader in preserving land and history in the South.” A documentary film company based in Athens, Ga., chose her as the subject of an upcoming film, “The Beach Lady,” which it said it would be screening in her honor at a Jacksonville theater next month.

“Once people got drawn in, you had to love her,” said Frances, 33, the daughter of Betsch’s brother, who is a jazz musician living in Paris. “She really danced her own minuet.” Another of Betsch’s siblings, Johnnetta B. Cole, is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., and the first African American to head the board of the United Way of America.

It was the Beach Lady’s doggedness, Phelts said, that led the Amelia Island Plantation, a luxury resort directly to the south, to donate an 8.5-acre tract to the National Park Service. Last October, President Bush signed legislation that made the site, which includes American Beach’s highest dune, part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a 46,000-acre expanse of coastal wetlands administered by the National Park Service.

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Betsch christened the 60-foot-high mound of sand and grass “NaNa,” or “grandmother” in the Twi language of West Africa. Climbing it, she said, was a spiritual experience.

“As my feet sink into her softness, somehow, from up there, all my worries seem to vanish,” she wrote in a newspaper essay two years ago.

In 2002, Betsch and other preservationists scored a victory when American Beach was added to the National Register of Historic Places, giving protection to the mostly small, pastel weather-beaten homes that line the half-dozen streets. Now, any construction must be in keeping with the existing homes, none of which exceed three stories.

The Beach Lady died Sept. 5 in her bed on the second floor of her lemon-yellow, concrete-block home on Ocean Boulevard. From the windows, one can see NaNa and the waves of the Atlantic.

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The room also houses her extensive personal archives, stacked inside milk crates, on topics that intrigued her: coastal plants, passive solar architecture, pygmies and butterflies.

Like the ripples from a stone cast on water, her influence has continued. On Thursday, the Nassau County Commission is scheduled to take possession of the brick-fronted Evans’ Rendezvous, a beachfront juke joint that has been boarded up.

With the assistance of the Trust for Public Land, it was purchased by a state program that helps preserve historic landmarks.

“If at all possible, we want to refurbish it and bring it back to its original condition, to use it for weddings and other community events,” Acree said.

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This month, she and the other county commissioners approved spending $15,000 for appraisals of three empty lots across the street from the old nightspot -- a precondition for using state grant money to buy them as well.

“We wouldn’t have a thing if it hadn’t been for MaVynee, and her persistence and her follow-through,” Phelts said. “Once she got started, she didn’t stop for anything.”

Early this month, Frances was burning sage in her late aunt’s room as a way to ritually purify the dead woman’s belongings.

A sidewalk bore a slogan in bright blue chalk written by Betsch: “Without Vision a People Perish.” Friends said her ashes would be scattered next month in the Atlantic off American Beach, and on the high dune she fought successfully to protect, her beloved NaNa.

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