MORE THAN A BEACH FIGHT

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Campers protest ordinance that would limit access to historically Black recreation spot.

Francis-Betsch

PENNY DICKERSON
/FLORIDA COURIER

Peri Francis-Betsch addresses county commissioners at the Nov. 18 meeting in Nassau County where a pending ordinance threatens a long-term legacy of beach camping.


BY PENNY DICKERSON
FLORIDA COURIER

Protest, petitions and the imagery of one man shackled in chains led a two-week outcry by African Americans in Northeast Florida to preserve American Beach in Nassau, County. 

The 40-acre beach was founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first Black millionaire who provided opportunities for employees of his Afro-American Life Insurance Company to own beachfront property and experience “Recreation and Relaxation Without Humiliation.”

Overnight ban opposed 

Following widespread media coverage, the recent activity culminated with a Nov. 18 meeting of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners where key representatives showed up to be heard.

At stake is an ordinance that would eradicate an 85-year tradition of overnight beach camping, an American Beach activity indulged by many African Americans who still covet local memories of social grandeur when segregation prohibited Blacks from swimming in the same Atlantic Ocean that brought them to American soil. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF NCFL FERNANDINA
Ron Starling became a one-man symbol of protest by chaining himself to a gazebo at Burney Park for 14 days in support of saving American Beach and a ban on overnight camping.

Preserving culture

Peri Frances-Betsch has a vested interest in the ordinance outcome. 

She is a passionate advocate, great-great grandaughter to A.L. Lewis, and arguably the most public cultural preservationist descendant since the 2005 passing of her aunt, MaVynee “Beach Lady” Betsch. Her aunt was the sister of Johnnetta Betsch Cole, former president of Spelman College and Bennett College. 

Francis-Betsch co-founded “American Beach Afrotopia,” a progressive collective offering historic tours, weekend retreats, workshops and cultural events. Although she is based in Atlanta, the 47-year-old is a regular at commission meetings. 

Support for campers

At the Nov. 18 meeting, FrancisBetsch spoke in support of organized beach campers in the unincorporated Nassau County Beaches. She asked commissioners to consider that within four unincorporated beach sites exist very different histories and traditions.

“I represent Night Sanders, American Beach Afrotopia and Florida Beach Cats. 

We are small groups of campers with an 85-year tradition on American Beach. People have been camping here before there was a single building, said Francis-Betsch. 

“We strive to respect the environment and community and are worthy stewards. We are sustainable, low impact, ‘leave-no-trace’ campers, and instruct our campers regarding glass bottles, sea turtles, and campfires. 

“We have no opposition to expansion to the beach ordinances because we haven’t been breaking the regulations that are currently in place.” 

Beach behavior 

Regulating beach activity for all Nassau County citizens has remained a county conundrum. Peters Point is a beachfront located about three miles north of American Beach.

Due to an onslaught of varied criminal activity, alcohol, loud music, trash and scattered debris personified by adult presence, existing ordinances have been modified. 

“We recognized that more change was coming. The current status quo was not bound to be a longterm option.” stated Francis-Betsch. 

“There were no restrictions on camping, no registration required, no necessary permits, and you could camp year-around. We were led to believe there would be an option for African American campers. We were not expecting a total ban.”

A call to action 

Previously held public meetings identified four overriding issues for review: bad behavior, federal law as to endangered species (specifically turtle nesting), creating one ordinance to regulate beach uses, and how to address beach camping. 

“Commissioners received binders from the group today,” said Mike Mullins, county manager/ county attorney who led a Beach Community Working Group formed in December 2018. The committee compiled recommendations toward implementing multiple existing regulations into a single omnibus ordinance. 

“There is no way to address these recommendations until public workshops and hearings are held…they have held 16 meetings with well over 1,600 people and gone as far as they can go. Nothing will be done tonight,’’ Mullins said at Monday’s meeting. 

Chain reaction 

Public workshops followed by advertised hearings on the ordinance are expected to convene in January, a decision longterm American Beach supporter Ron Starling believes is a stall tactic. 

It was Starling who became a one-man symbol of hope who chained himself to a gazebo post at American Beach’s Burney Park and then relocated to the beach when deputies threatened to arrest him.

A Navy veteran, Starling founded Night Sanders in 1998, and from Nov. 4 to the chairman’s first gavel slam Monday night, he launched a protest to garner attention for the American Beach plight. 

Any means necessary 

Starling, also known as “Zurie,” released those chains and appeared in a suit and tie to conduct beach business with commissioners. He skirted ownership of rumors related to American Beach being privatized. 

“After 14 days of standing out in the rain, not sun or bright skies, but storms, these people you see in here, I spoke to them. I’m the one who got the press out there. Whoever started that thing about privatizing the beach, that wasn’t me,” said Starling. 

“But I do believe that is what’s going to happen sooner or later. It was said by you, Mr. Mullins, on TV, that we were not privatizing the beach, but you did not put a period behind that statement. At the end you left a comma, and I put the ending that says N-OW.” 

Turtle tales 

Sea turtles emerge May 1-Oct. 31 at night to lay eggs in nests dug into dry sand. They then return to sea. Starling’s contingency respects the process by camping bi-annually in April and November. 

“We’ve been practicing turtles and how to keep them safe. We’ve even had the preserves come out and give classes for the past six years,” asserted Starling.

“You just decided now, in the past two years, that you’re going to use turtles as leverage to take people off the beach?” 

Holding commissioners accountable for timeframe and change has been a refrain for Starling. At an Oct. meeting, he entered into record the following: 

“For the previous 22 years, there has been no problem with camping; however, the issues at Peters Point are not the same as American Beach. There should be a solution for the two separate areas.” 

Kindred spirits

Solidarity is thematic among American Beach supporters. They are empathetic to homeowners at Peters Pointe but seek to distinguish African Americans from recent reports they consider “caught up in.”

Frances-Betsch and Starling have a common goal, but different approaches. 

“I support Ron’s enthusiasm, passion and determination,” stated FrancisBetsch.  “But the imagery I choose for myself is not one of chains.’’ 

At the meeting’s close, Starling shared the following with the Florida Courier: 

“I have zero faith in the integrity of upcoming public workshops and hearings, but I plan to attend each one and encourage everyone in Nassau and beyond to join me.” 

Invitation to beach 

In the interim, FrancesBetsch wants the community to maintain and increase its momentum to support American Beach.

“We shouldn’t be so fearful of what they are doing. What are you doing if you feel American Beach is being taken away? Frances-Betsch queried. 

“We stopped appreciating American Beach and it has now become a good deal for real estate brokers. Visit the historic museum, rent the community center, plan a girlfriend getaway, or bring children to collect seashells. Celebrate American Beach,’’ she added.

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