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MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch

Environmental activist and opera singer MaVynne “Beach Lady” Betsch was born on January 13, 1935 in Jacksonville, Florida. She was raised in one of the most preeminent black families in the South. Betsch is the daughter of Mary and John Betsch, and the great-granddaughter Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who founded Florida’s oldest African-American beach, and Anne Kingsley, the African American wife of plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley. Betsch was educated at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Upon completion of her bachelors’ degree in 1955, she moved to Europe where she was an opera singer for ten years.

Since 1975, 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.

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.

Accession Number

A2004.168

Sex

Female

Interview Date

9/20/2004

Last Name

Betsch

Maker Category
Schools

Boylan-Haven School

Oberlin College

Edward Waters College

Benjamin Banneker Academic High School

First Name

MaVynee

Birth City, State, Country

Jacksonville

HM ID

BET02

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Florida

Favorite Vacation Destination

Desert

Favorite Quote

Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Florida

Birth Date

1/13/1935

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

American Beach

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Bread (Raisin), Garlic, Olives

Death Date

9/5/2005

Short Description

Environmental activist and opera singer MaVynne “Beach Lady” Betsch (1935 - 2005 ) was known for her full time efforts to preserve to preserve the history and ecology of American Beach, Florida, the oldest African American beach and her great-grandfather’s legacy.

Favorite Color

Orange

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch's interview, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch's interview, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch traces her maternal ancestry to Anna and Zephaniah Kingsley in Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her paternal German ancestry

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch recalls her great-grandfather's summer Sunday ritual of church service followed by a family outing to American Beach

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch details her schooling at Boylan-Haven School in Jacksonville, Florida and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch makes numerological predictions about the coming year, 2005, based on her beloved great-grandfather's date of birth, 1865

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch lists her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her family's home at 8th Street and Jefferson Street in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch remembers her sister's violin tutor in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her childhood community in Sugar Hill, Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood in Jacksonville and American Beach, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes what it was like to grow up in a wealthy African American family during a time of segregation

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch explains her great-grandfather's vision for a truly democratic community at American Beach, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her studies and influential teachers

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch remembers her childhood aspirations and influences in Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch recalls how her childhood aspirations evolved

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch remembers her audition for 'Salome' in Germany

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her costume and the set during the Dance of the Seven Veils in the opera 'Salome'

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch explains that the end of her opera career was the beginning of her mission to save American Beach from white developers

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the rich African American history of Jacksonville and American Beach, Florida

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch tells stories from the African American history of Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the environmental and cultural causes to which she has dedicated her family's wealth

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the importance of history, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch recalls meeting famous jazz musicians while living in Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch explains the significance of her clothing and adornments

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about discovering nature upon her move to Ribault Scenic Drive in Jacksonville, Florida in the 1970s

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch explains the links between environmental activism and racial justice

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her plans to travel and advocate for environmental justice

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch reflects upon her life

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the value of helping the community

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the importance of history, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch explains her great-grandfather's philosophy of money and his prominence in the black community of Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about the current state of American Beach, Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her experiences of living in both black and white communities in the United States and Europe

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch talks about her experiences as an opera student in Europe

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch narrates her photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch narrates her photographs, pt. 2

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

4$9

DATitle
MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch describes her mother's family background
MaVynee "Beach Lady" Betsch reflects upon her legacy
Transcript
Next we'll be exploring your family background.$$Okay.$$Could you please tell me about your mother? What was her name? Where was she born?$$Um-hm. My mother was Mary Frances Lewis Betsch. She was, of course, granddaughter of A.L. Lewis [Abraham Lincoln Lewis]. She was born in Jacksonville [Florida]. And, she attended Wilberforce University [Wilberforce, Ohio]. And, at the time of her death, she was vice president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company [Jacksonville, Florida]. The insurance company my great-grandfather helped to found in Jacksonville.$$So, did she grow up her entire childhood--$$(Simultaneous) Um-hm. In Jacksonville, right there.$$--(simultaneous) adolescent, in Jacksonville, Florida? What do you know about her growing up?$$Oh, she was apparently very happy. There were only two children. I have--had an uncle. He was Florida's first corporate black lawyer. And, my mother married my dad, John Betsch, who at the time was working up here in Atlanta [Georgia] at Atlanta Life [Insurance Company; Atlanta Life Financial Group, Atlanta, Georgia]. 'Cause don't forget, now--oh, child please, you talking about insurance companies, I mean they were the economic base for the entire black community in United States. There was an Afro in Florida, Afro Life Insurance Company; Atlanta Life in Georgia; North Carolina Mutual [Life Insurance Company, Durham, North Carolina]. They use to call themselves the golden triangle, okay. It was [Alonzo] Herndon in Atlanta, [Charles Clinton] Spaulding in South Carolina [sic. North Carolina], my great-grandfather in Florida. There was Supreme Life [Insurance Company of America] in Chicago [Illinois], Golden Gate [sic. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company] in [Los Angeles] California. Child, please; we did it all. You couldn't walk into a white bank and get money, are you crazy? We talking about the 1900s, okay. So, mother and daddy were part of that whole community support system, economically for the whole South. And, I grew up with that, and mother was very happy as from what I hear for her childhood. And, she was a musician. She played the organ at the church, oh child. Gorgeous woman, oh, wait 'til you see the pictures; she was gorgeous. She had, you know, most women have the, the sort of like the, what would call it, like a V shape of the hips, mother had the double hip, like the guitar or the violin, oh child please; gorgeous, gorgeous (laughter).$$How would you describe her personality? Who she was?$$She was kind of reserved, like my sister. We make such a study of contrast. My sister by the way is Dr. Johnnetta [B.] Cole, former president of Spelman [College, Atlanta, Georgia], now president of Bennett [College, Greensboro, North Carolina]. Johnnetta is very sophisticated. I'm more of the free spirit type and she--I mean, look at this. I mean, who else would walk around looking like this but somebody who's, who's independent in thought and in the way I live? I'm like my dad. Dad was like that. He was kind of fun, fun. I guess that's why I never married. Because I thought, now you know, I don't need somebody with problems and boring me to tears. Daddy was so much fun. Mother was very cool, very sophisticated, okay. So, she--we have the study of contrast.$$Did she share any stories with you related to her growing up?$$Only in the sense of what it was like. Don't forget now, we're talking about--she was born in 1906. This is the height of really bad segregated times in Florida. And, there was always the fear of the [Ku Klux] Klan [KKK]. Jacksonville was, as you know, right there on the border with Georgia. So, everyone always thinks Florida as being a liberal state. But, we--I guess, because of our proximity to Georgia, we had a lot of the more conservative--and it still is--elements. So, but, where we lived was called Sugar Hill [Jacksonville, Florida]. My grandfather--great-grandfather gave that house, his house, to my mother. And, it was the section to live in Jacksonville, where the, quote, upper class blacks lived. Don't forget now, in black society, it was the undertaker, the preacher, the insurance man, the hairdresser, and the teacher. We were the economic base for the whole South. I mean, these were people you knew had good jobs. These are the people who helped others. So, our house was always like Grand Central Station [Grand Central Terminal, New York, New York], oh, child please. I mean, children coming in. I mean, daddy, the insurance company, all the men coming in from the different branches staying at our house. There were always parties. My great-grandfather's house had twenty-two rooms. It was the showplace. We now know--unfortunately, tore it down. But, it would have--it was financed by blacks. Built by blacks. It would have been probably the oldest of that type in the State of Florida; gorgeous.$(Simultaneous) What do you want your legacy to be?$$Well, I saved that sand dune at NaNa [American Beach, Florida]. That's so important, darling. It's symbolic of so much that's special about American Beach [Florida]. As children, I remember we used to hide--they had a riot down there. The name of the sheriff during segregated time was [Henry J.] Youngblood.$$When was the riot?$$This was like in the '40s [1940s].$$Okay.$$It was awesome. And, we would hide behind--see don't forget now, this sand dune is sixty feet tall, and we would hide back there. And, the quiet--see, Jodi [Merriday]--people have so little place to go now where it's quiet. Sometimes when I walk on the beach and I see a fisherman out there, you know what I say to 'em? I say, "Did you catch any fish?" He say, "No. But, you know what? It's like all my troubles went out with that last tide." Isn't that beautiful?$$Um-hm.$$That you can actually go somewhere. I mean, everything, it's so many--well, first of all, it's too many of us. What are we now, 6.5 billion? And, first we tried group therapy with psych--and now the thing is, now people, for people to turn in to find their inner peace. But, where can you go to find inner peace, where everything is so crowded? And, the beach is one place. Come to American Beach; come--the dune, you can go sit up on the dune and just look out there on that ocean. And, it's like nothing else matters now. All your troubles is gonna go out. Tomorrow will come. Don't worry about it. There's a kind of peace that drugs can't give you, alcohol, nothing else. And, this is something you can get by turning in for quiet, fact is, so. If I've helped to save that, that will be the best legacy I can imagine.