When I telephoned my acquaintance MaVynee Betsch in American Beach, Florida, recently, I got her answering machine. It would be adamantine to enlarge my amazement. An answering machine! In all the years I’ve accepted MaVynee, she’s never alike had a home telephone. Actually, for abounding of those years, she didn’t accept a home. She resided sporadically in a donated bivouac or in loaned basement rooms, but primarily (and willfully) on a bassinet longue on the beach. Now, at the close affirmation of ancestors and friends, she has confused into a baby apartment, got herself listed with agenda abetment and accustomed up her itinerant ways. Or maybe not. “Hello,” said the articulation on the tape. “This is the Bank Lady. If you’re accepting this message, it may be because I accept angry into a butterfly and floated out over the bank dune.”
That’s MaVynee: defying gravity, absolutely amusing in the face of affliction and beneath fortunes. She was not consistently a anchoress at the beach. She was aloft in one of the capital atramentous families in the South and was accomplished at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She advised articulation in Paris and London, and sang opera throughout Germany during the mid- 1950s and aboriginal ’60s in concert halls area she is still remembered four decades afterwards she abdicate her alluring career because she acquainted herself alleged home to Florida. She jettisoned added than her diva status. She additionally gave abroad her cogent inheritance, autograph checks to attention causes until the money ran out in the backward 1970s, with the abstract advantage that a arbiter on collywobbles is committed to her and an Atlantic-traveling bang has been accustomed her name (MaVynee #1151) by biologists at Boston’s New England Aquarium. If MaVynee does absolutely adjudge to float off as a butterfly, she absolutely won’t abridgement for credentials.
In bounce 2002, MaVynee was diagnosed with cancer, and surgeons removed her stomach. That triggered her family’s affirmation that she assuredly move indoors. In the abatement came worse news: her blight had recurred and spread, and doctors said she adeptness accept alone months to live. That’s why I was calling. Aback MaVynee heard my voice, she best up the buzz (MaVynee, already screening her calls!), but she didn’t appetite to amble on her health. She capital to altercate her plans. MaVynee intends to alpha a museum.
The academy MaVynee envisions will accommodate the history of American Beach, the boondocks area she’s lived abounding of her 68 years. American Bank is on Amelia Island, about 40 afar arctic of city Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast. It was congenital in the 1930s by Florida’s aboriginal allowance company, the Afro-American Action Allowance Company, at the bidding of its president, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s aboriginal atramentous millionaire. For decades it flourished as an ocean-side paradise for blacks from about the country, who absolutely had little choice. “When we were children, could we go to the bank aloof anywhere we wanted?” MaVynee asks the academy kids who appear through boondocks on buses for history tours. “Uh-uh. No…way…José!” Her articulation is as cultured, carnal and aesthetic as you’d apprehend a above opera star’s to be, and her carrying so august that aback she sits on her bankrupt bogus bank armchair on the adopted sundeck of Abraham Lincoln Lewis’ old home (the oldest abode on the beach), you would anticipate that she endemic the place. Which in a way she does: A. L. Lewis was her great-grandfather.
Many of those visiting the Bank in its heyday were additionally illustrious—writer Zora Neale Hurston, ample best Joe Louis, amateur Cab Calloway and civilian rights baton A. Philip Randolph amid them. But best were accustomed banal African-Americans who came to adore (as the Beach’s advertisements phrased it) “relaxation and amusement afterwards humiliation.” The boondocks retains alike today that autonomous mix. It is the home of one of the aboriginal atramentous graduates of Mount Holyoke and the aboriginal atramentous Florida absolute cloister amends aback Reconstruction. And it is additionally the home of accustomed folks. “See that house?” MaVynee asks visitors. “A maid lives there. And a postman lives over there. Area abroad in America do maids own bank homes?”
American Bank was built-in in a time aback atramentous action was bedeviled by the strictures of Jim Crow. Shut out from the white economy, African-Americans created their own, and in Philadelphia and Atlanta and Los Angeles and best added above American cities, they lived and shopped in a abstracted cosmos alongside to the white one nearby. Jacksonville had its own advancing atramentous food and restaurants, factories, newspapers, banks, allowance companies and hospitals and, as a absolute consequence, its own atramentous able establishment. If that enactment was affluent and educated, it was additionally airy to best whites, who tended to anticipate of atramentous bodies as entertainers, abyss or “the help.” The atramentous average chic alike vacationed out of white sight, in resorts like Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Val Verde alfresco Los Angeles. And American Beach.
Most of those places accept languished—after the annihilation of segregation, they weren’t bare the way they already had been, and the businesses that created and fostered them bankrupt as well. The Afro-American Action Allowance Aggregation shut its doors in 1991, and what’s larboard of American Beach, with beneath than 25 year-round families, doesn’t alike accomplish an actualization on abounding Florida maps. Best of its homes are crumbling and modest; a few of the grandest accept been broken down. And its businesses—the nightclubs, hotels and restaurants that acclimated to beat with action all summer night—are boarded up.
There are abounding who anticipate American Bank will not be about abundant longer, because the burden from affluent developers. Eight years ago, a ample area of acreage that had already belonged to the Beach, including a behemothic bank dune that dominates the town, was awash to Amelia Island Plantation, one of the multimillion-dollar golf and vacation resorts that are American Beach’s neighbors. MaVynee angrily adjoin the sale—we are talking, afterwards all, about the aforementioned dune over which she envisions aerial her butterfly wings. She calls it NaNa and afflicted its accident as admitting the dune were a affiliate of her family. The resort preserved it and congenital a golf advance on abundant of the acreage abaft it.
If this all makes the abstraction of an American Bank building assume quixotic, add the blue actuality that the museum’s capital apostle is herself a actual pauper. MaVynee’s basal hire is paid by her sister in Arctic Carolina and her medical bills by Amusing Security. Accompany pony up for her pharmacy and buzz bills. But those who apperceive her apperceive never to bet adjoin her. In whatever angelic bank den building futures are traded, the building at American Bank may be listed as a continued shot. But the acute money’s on the Bank Lady. Afterwards all, MaVynee has a way of assault the odds.
Case in point: NaNa. This year, Amelia Island Plantation, MaVynee’s old antagonist, fabricated arrange to alteration the bank dune, in MaVynee’s honor, to the National Park Service. MaVynee’s accompany capital to present the account to her as a abruptness on her altogether this accomplished January 13, but they apparent that the alteration required, literally, an act of Congress. Now, Representative Ander Crenshaw and Senator Bill Nelson, both of Florida, accept appear to the rescue; they are introducing the all-important legislation.
The schoolchildren of American Bank accept a approach about MaVynee’s bewitched adeptness to prevail—they buzz that she’s a shaman or a witch. Their affirmation is her appearance: her fingernails are actual long—until they got abrupt in the hospital, those on her larboard duke coiled to added than a bottom and a half. Her hair, coiffed into a caster over her head, cascades in graying dreadlocks bottomward her aback and accomplished her ankles. Her beard and clothes are accessory with political buttons, absolutely abolitionist and about funny, best cogent her charge to amusing and ancestral justice, ecological causes and vegetarianism. Her animation acts as a boss come-on, abnormally for children. “They appear to see my hair,” MaVynee says mischievously, “and I accord ’em a little history.”
It’s a history that’s been absent to the beyond apple and alike to the adolescent bearing of blacks. The building MaVynee envisions would about-face that invisibility and highlight the ability of Abraham Lincoln Lewis’ generation. “It’s awesome,” MaVynee says, “how they ashore calm and created a apple afterwards alfresco help.” The bulletin transcends the bogus abuttals of “black history,” she says. In this era of accumulated scandal, Americans are debating the obligations of the business apple and its leaders to society. No accumulation has confronted those questions added anon than did the atramentous businessmen of A. L. Lewis’ generation, who acquainted an absolute obligation to “uplift” their community.
Herself a active antique of that abundant history, MaVynee has calm abounding added charcoal to alpha her museum: old authorization bowl holders that acquaint “Negro Ocean Playground,” Afro-American Action Allowance Aggregation ashtrays that vow “A Relief in Distress,” and a abundance of papers, including 19th-century acreage accomplishments and banal certificates and such manuscripts as A. L. Lewis’ accent afore Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. For years MaVynee kept her backing in milk crates, stored out of the rain in her assorted way stations. She hopes that a academic athenaeum for such treasures will animate others who accomplished the Beach’s history to accord their keepsakes and records.
Prospects for the building at American Bank are attractive rosy. The canton is accouterment a allowance in a new association centermost on the outskirts of town. A board that includes historians and building admiral hopes to aggrandize MaVynee’s accession and to accession $500,000 in funds. Says Rowena Stewart, above controlling administrator of the American Jazz Building in Kansas City: “We are planning for photographs, signs, posters, accouterment of the period—any artifacts we can use to re-create, in this baby space, the acquaintance of actuality at the Bank during the time aback its role was so crucial. And we are tape-recording the recollections of the aboriginal association for an articulate history archive.”
“I apperceive I’m blessed,” MaVynee says, “because anytime annihilation bad happens to me, article acceptable comes out of it. I affirm sometimes I anticipate my great-grandfather is attractive out for me.” He may be at that. MaVynee’s best contempo analysis showed the fast-moving blight adjourned in its tracks, and a addled physician told her that if she keeps on like this, he’ll accept to alter his prognosis. She’s assault the allowance already again, it seems, and her abounding accompany achievement that her amphibian butterfly canicule are far advanced of her.
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