In Their Footsteps

Five generations of a close-knit family have come home to Florida's historic American Beach.

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American Beach

Anthony John Coletti
 

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  • Retro Revelry

    Historic American Beach

    Since 1935, tiny American Beach has weathered hurricanes, segregation, economic downturns, and developers to provide a vacation haven for many African-American families.

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Since the 1940s, when this stretch of sand on Amelia Island was one of the rare beaches open to African-Americans, members of Katherine Williams' family have strolled American Beach. "We come down at least once a month from Norfolk, Virginia, sometimes more," Katherine says. "We love to go out early and watch the sun rise as we cast our lines into the surf."

The small town was established during the Jim Crow era by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida's first black millionaire and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Abraham wanted a place where his employees could vacation and have the opportunity to own a home by the shore. When he found a 200-acre plot along Florida's northeast coast, he purchased it and named the community after his business.

"It became popular for affluent African-Americans," Katherine says. "During its heyday, nightclubs, bathhouses, and restaurants dotted the beach." Celebrities such as Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Cab Calloway, and Zora Neale Hurston all visited. Until the 1950s, crowds descended upon the area from Memorial Day through Labor Day. But after desegregation and damage to the area from Hurricane Dora in 1964, many visitors began choosing locations closer to home. The community shrank, and businesses closed as land was purchased for new development. In January 2002, the National Register of Historic Places declared American Beach a historic site to prevent further redevelopment.

Katherine's grandmother Clarethea Edwards Brooks remembers the town at its peak. "This was one place you could come play and you knew everybody. Sometimes we would take blankets and pillows down to the beach and sleep on the sand," she says. "I have always loved this beach―it's heaven on Earth to me."

Ruby Edwards Baugh, Clarethea's mother, purchased property on Ervin Street here in the late 1940s. She built a beach house for her family, and small apartments that she rented to vacationers during the '50s and '60s. Though the original house was torn down, Katherine wanted her children to experience the same joys she remembers. In 2006, she and Roger bought a vacant lot down the street from her great-grandmother's property and built a vacation home.

Today, about 30 family members have gathered at American Beach for a reunion. Uncle James Mungin, a professional caterer in Miami, is in charge of the food. By late afternoon, everyone has indulged in a feast of crabs and barbecue. Afterward, the whole crew returns to the water.

"Generations of my family have fond memories of time spent here," Katherine says. "We're so happy to continue the tradition."

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