From the Archives: Florida’s Historic American Beach

By Florida Verve

In response to the realities of Florida’s de jure segregation and fueled by their determination to rise above the Jim Crow Era Laws, Abraham Lincoln Lewis and his business associates purchased 30-plus acres of beach frontage on Amelia Island in Nassau County, Florida, in 1935. At that time, segregation in Florida, as in most of the South, existed in almost every phase of life — including the beaches.

Lewis named the property American Beach. In the beginning, the developments goal was modest: to serve as a place for employees of his Afro-American Life Insurance Company to vacation, spend time with family, and perhaps own a home outside of  Jacksonville. The results, however, exceeded their initial plans.

It was “an entrepreneur’s dream,” according to historian Marsha Dean Phelts. During its first decade, American Beach grew to encompass 200-plus acres, and unsold properties were made available to African Americans outside of the insurance company. Though there were other communities like it in Florida, American Beach was by far the most successful.  Various businesses dotted the landscape — hotels, restaurants, artisan shops, clubs, etc. — most of which were small locally-owned operations. In fact, American Beach became the go to destination in Florida for many famous African Americans of that era: Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Armstrong, and  James Brown, to name a few.

However, the multi-decade prosperity would not last. In September 1964, Hurricane Dora made landfall in nearby St. Augustine — the first on record to do so in that area –  which caused extensive damage to houses and businesses in American Beach. That same year, the Civil Rights Act brought an end to de jure segregation. Phelts summed up the odd turn of events for the community in the following manner:

“The civil rights legislated in 1964 had opened all public facilities to African Americans. Former American Beach vacationers and day-trippers now frolicked on Miami Beach, raced up and down the wide sands at Daytona, wore out the cobblestones of Savannah, and rode high at St. Simons Island. All along the shores of the East Coast, blacks explored areas that had once been off limits. The three-day weekends at American Beach shrank to one day; the Sunday visitors and day-trippers no longer stayed overnight. Loaded buses no longer caused a bottleneck at the crossroads. With so little business most of the restaurants and resort establishments closed.”

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Jacksonville, Florida, ca. 1919. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Featured Image: Postcard of American Beach. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Editor’s Note: This Florida Verve post was originally published on February 13, 2014.