MaVynee Oshun Betsch

By Peggy Macdonald

Historic preservationist, environmentalist (American Beach, Amelia Island)

Years: 1935–2005

Remembered for: “Beach Lady” MaVynee Oshun Betsch was dedicated to the preservation of the history of American Beach.

Why you should know her:

Jacksonville native MaVynee Oshun Betsch — christened Marvyne Elisabeth Betsch and known as “The Beach Lady” — was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a self-made millionaire who co-founded the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Lewis’ wife, Mary Sammis was the great-granddaughter of slave trader and plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and his Senegalese wife, Anna Madigine Jai Kingsley, Marsha Dean Phelts wrote in An American Beach for African Americans.

According to the American Beach Museum, Lewis wanted to create a space where African Americans could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” In 1935, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company’s Pension Bureau purchased the first portion

of what would become American Beach. This beautiful oceanfront resort thrived during the Jim Crow era, when most swimming areas in Florida were reserved for white patrons. However, when the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated the beaches, the popularity of American Beach declined.

In 1977, MaVynee Betsch — a classically trained opera singer — began to devote her attention to preserving the legacy of American Beach. She co-founded the A. L. Lewis Historical Society and successfully lobbied to add American Beach to the National Register of Historical Places. Betsch also pressed for a variety of environmental protections as development threatened the sand dunes, which she described as a sacred space. In 2004, the National Park Service acquired the “NaNa” sand dune system Betsch had lobbied to protect. After her death in 2005, a memorial service was held at American Beach, where Betsch wished her ashes would become part of the sand.