Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 15, 2021
February 2021 has been designated National African American History Month. The Fernandina Observer will highlight several local African Americans who have played an important role in our history throughout this month.
MaVynee Betsch, christened Marvyne Elisabeth Betsch (January 13, 1935 – September 5, 2005), was an American environmentalist and an activist. She was better known as The Beach Lady, because she spent the better part of her adult life educating the public on the Black history and environmental importance of American Beach.
In 1935, Betsch was born into one of the preeminent black families not only in Jacksonville, FL, but in the entire South. Her parents were Mary and John Betsch, and her grandparents were Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who founded Florida’s second oldest African-American beach (Manhattan Beach to the south was the first), and Mary Kingsley Sammis, the great granddaughter of Zephaniah Kingsley and Anna Kingsley.
Betsch was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1955, moved to Europe, where she was an opera singer for ten years. Betsch made her opera debut in Braunschweig in 1959.
When Betsch returned to Florida, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which forced her to re-evaluate her life. She turned her attention to environmental causes both on a broad scale and more specifically on American Beach on Amelia Island, FL, where she took up residence in 1975. She slept on American Beach in a chaise longue for the rest of her life.
Sometimes called the African-American Hyannisport, American Beach was a place where the crème de la crème of black society came to relax in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s-1950s.
From 1975 until her death, Betsch made it her full-time mission to preserve and protect American Beach, her great-grandfather’s investment, from development and destruction. She was famously named “Beach Lady,” for her many efforts and dedication to the beach and its inhabitants. ‘Beach Lady’ gave her life savings, some $750,000, to sixty environmental organizations and causes, ten of which she was a lifetime member, and most of them involved animals.
‘Beach Lady’ was featured on CBS and CNN and in such publications as Coastal Living, Essence, Southern Living, Smithsonian and over twenty-five others. Betsch also dedicated part of her life in convincing others that nature and natural things are fine. ‘Beach Lady’ had natural hair that was grown for over twenty years and measured over seven feet long in some areas; she also had one foot long finger nails on one of her hands, trying to prove that things can grow naturally without protein from meat.
Since 1975, Betsch dedicated herself to the preservation and protection of American Beach from development and destruction.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2002, which caused the removal of her stomach, ‘Beach Lady’ continued working hard for causes that benefitted others. She developed plans for the American Beach Museum, opened in 2014, which contains the history of American Beach, the town where she lived many of the years of her life. Betsch never married and never had children. She was the older sister of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first female African American president of Spelman College, and president of Bennett College.
Betsch passed away on September 5, 2005 at age 70. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama on November 12, 2005.
For much more information about American Beach click here or visit the American Beach Museum located at 1600 Julia Street on Amelia Island just south of the City of Fernandina Beach.