In the only complete history of Florida's American Beach to date, Marsha Dean Phelts draws together personal interviews, photos, newspaper articles, memoirs, maps, and official documents to reconstruct the character and traditions of Amelia Island's 200-acre African American community. In its heyday, when other beaches grudgingly provided only limited access, black vacationers traveled as many as 1,000 miles down the east coast of the United States and hundreds of miles along the Gulf coast to a beachfront that welcomed their business. Beginning in 1781 with the Samuel Harrison homestead on the southern end of Amelia Island, Phelts traces the birth of the community to General Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15, in which the Union granted many former Confederate coastal holdings, including Harrison's property, to former slaves. Moving through the Jim Crow era, Phelts describes the development of American Beach's predecessors in the early 1900s. Finally, she provides the fullest account to date of the life and contributions of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the wealthy African American businessman who in 1935, as president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, initiated the purchase and development of the tract of seashore known as American Beach. From Lewis's arrival on the scene, Phelts follows the community's sustained development and growth, highlighting landmarks like the Ocean-Vu-Inn and the Blue Palace and concluding with a stirring plea for the preservation of American Beach, which is currently threatened by encroaching development.
Marsha Dean Phelts, author of The American Beach Cookbook, is a contributor to the Florida Star newspaper and spent many years as a librarian in the Florida geneaology department of the Jacksonville Public Library.