As we celebrate Women’s History Month this month, we want to give you a closer look at amazing women on the First Coast who made an impact on our natural environments and historic places. The first woman is MaVynee Betsch, known by all as the Beach Lady. Betsch was a champion for the preservation of American Beach. She named the historic NaNa Dune, the tallest dune in Florida, which was added to the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in 2004 largely due to her efforts. When interviewed by The History Makers in 2004, Betsch was asked what she wanted her legacy to be. She said, “Well, I saved that sand dune at NaNa. That is so important, darling. It’s symbolic of so much that’s special about American Beach.”
Betsch was raised in one of the most preeminent black families in the South. She is a descendent of Anna Kingsley, the African American wife of plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley. She is the great-granddaughter of the founder of American Beach, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and the daughter of Mary and John Betsch. Her great-grandfather was president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He bought 33 acres of shorefront property on Amelia Island in 1935 to give African Americans access to a beach during the days of segregation. He made two additional land purchases over the next 11 years to bring the total acreage of American Beach to 216 and offered parcels for sale to the Black community.
American Beach was a popular tourist destination for African Americans for many years. Betsch grew up playing in the dunes and dedicated the last 30 years of her life to the preservation of its natural integrity. She named the NaNa Dune and championed the efforts to post signs to protect nesting sea turtles. She also encouraged American Beach residents to plant wildflowers on vacant lots to stabilize the land and provide a habitat for butterflies. If you visit American Beach and NaNa Dune, you will see the historic marker that tells of her efforts and her legacy.
Betsch was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and was an opera singer in Europe from 1955 until 1965. She started her crusade to save American Beach in 1975 and gave her life savings, about $750,000, to sixty environmental organizations and causes. Betsch was a character, some would describe her as eccentric. She let her hair grow naturally for more than twenty years. It measured seven feet long in some areas. She also had one-foot-long fingernails on one of her hands.
An article from the Smithsonian Magazine from June 2003 said Betsch lived like a nomad for many years. Sporadically in a donated trailer or loaned rooms, and primarily on a chaise lounge on the beach. Family and friends finally insisted she move into a more permanent place, so she got a small apartment, listed with directory assistance, and even got an answering machine. Her message said, “Hello, this is the Beach Lady. If you’re getting this message, it may be because I have turned into a butterfly and floated out over the sand dune.”
Betsch developed plans for an American Beach Museum which opened in 2014. She never married and never had children. Her younger sister, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, was the first female African American president of Spelman College, and president of Bennett College.
Betsch died in September of 2005 but her legacy and presence in American Beach can still be felt today. In her interview with the History Makers, she mentioned her favorite quote, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”