WITHIN THE MARROW OF RUSS RYMER'S AMERICAN Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory lies a little-known fact of American history. Until recently, in most places in the United States, if you were free and black, white society wouldn't let you die right. A white institution wouldn't insure your life or bury you — even for money.

The American way of death has always been racially segregated. Because of this, black-owned insurance companies and mortuaries were created to accommodate the black masses' desire for a decent sendoff. The market was lucrative: Upon it several African-American fortunes swelled, one of which was generated by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Jacksonville, Florida­based Afro-American Life Insurance Co., chartered in 1901. Lewis was a prominent millionaire with a 22-room mansion. His stature was recognized by powerful whites as well as by his own people. As an insurance magnate, Lewis not only helped African-Americans die right; he aided them in living, too. Among his accomplishments was the building, on Amelia Island near Jacksonville, of American Beach, a flourishing vacation spot enjoyed by wealthy blacks and those folks of moderate means, a place on the ocean's edge, as Rymer puts it, “free from the humiliation of Jim Crow.”

American Beach guides the reader through territory rarely traversed in mainstream culture but rich with resources for grappling with our past. Lewis was a member of what Rymer, borrowing from Jacksonville's famous native James Weldon Johnson, calls “the invisible class.” These elites were few but disproportionately influential, particularly in the early-20th-century drive for civil equality. Rymer finds the pitch of their song, even though it has been nearly “drowned out in a chorus of slave chant and poor man's blues.” In a complex layering akin to musical composition, his admirable book radiates outward from Lewis to his elite descendants, to a host of characters throughout the surrounding region. American Beach ranges in time and space from ancient Dahomey to Florida, from colonial Spain to the White House and back to Germany in the 1960s. And the elusive millionaire himself becomes a touchstone for some of the nation's deepest concerns about community and self-knowledge.

Lewis created more than wealth; he contributed to a national black culture of uplift. His contemporary, Johnson — lawyer, American consul, NAACP head, poet known for the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — relates in his autobiography, Along This Way, that this culture transmitted a “central idea . . . [of] service.” Service was the idiom common to the aristocracy of color, whatever its shortcomings. As Lewis rose, so did the fortunes of black Jacksonville. His investments funded not only funerals, but home mortgages in thriving residential areas, at whose apex sat the tony Sugar Hill. His company provided loans for merchants in The Bricks, Jacksonville's substantial black commercial district, with its bustling businesses, theaters, newspapers, churches and Masonic Hall. In 1935 Lewis established the Lincoln Golf and Country Club, where, Rymer notes, “black celebrities from around the country — most notably Joe Louis — came to play or dine.” By the 1940s, Lewis had parceled together over 100 acres of prime beachfront to create what the author calls a “democratically open resort utopia.” For generations, American Beach was a crowning symbol of the accomplished culture that had produced Lewis. Its leisure amenities, the sand dunes and what an advertising brochure described as “the ripples of the tangy sea” were a promise fulfilled to African-Americans. A stretch of the Atlantic coast had been triumphantly transformed from slave dock to recreational sanctuary.

Now, however, American Beach, Sugar Hill and The Bricks are gone — demolished or in ruins. In that reversal lies Rymer's moving investigation. An extraordinary descendant of Lewis, MaVynee (pronounced mah-veen) Betsch, asks the question at the heart of the book: “What went wrong?” Rymer demonstrates that the decline of American Beach is emblematic, not only of the fate of America's black neighborhoods, but of “the trench war between morality and money” being waged in the nation's communities. It is Rymer's achievement that most readers of American Beach will find that war disturbingly redolent of their own civic reality.

AMERICAN BEACH IS DIVIDED INTO THREE STORIES, each pointing to Rymer's theme of “emancipating those things — culture, memory, history, heritage and personal integrity — from the chains that modern commerce imposes on them.” The first story exposes the open wounds in Fernandina, neighbor to Jacksonville and the seat of Nassau County. The drama of the shooting of a black man, Dennis Wilson, by white cops in 1994 is distressingly familiar. Unusual, however, are the small-town relationships that transcend race. One of the cops who killed Wilson, Denny Bell, was a regular visitor to the dead man's home over the years. When Wilson's mother, Albertina, saw Bell coming, “she set an extra place for breakfast.” After the policeman concluded his testimony at the inquest, a relative of Wilson whispered to him, “How could you? You sat at our table!” Rymer explores surprising aspects of the town's past beneath the history of police brutality and institutionalized racism to find a significant period of racial “affection” before the big industrial mills transformed the town in the 1930s. Johnson confirms this in his autobiography; he tells of having a white mammy in 1871, and of the conditions that made the area “good for Negroes” before Fernandina became dominated by “crackers.” Denny Bell's agony over the shooting helped trigger his fatal heart attack, a counterpoint to the grief and rage of black residents.

The third and weakest section in Rymer's book concerns Eatonville, the oldest American town incorporated by blacks, birthplace of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, and talisman of independent black settlements across the country. In 1987, the year of Eatonville's centennial, a proposed county highway threatened its destruction. N.Y. Nathiri, a rather humorless convert to Sunni Islam, led a successful campaign to halt the freeway. Here Rymer's language becomes turgid with borderline academic jargon as he draws a tenuous comparison between the historic black town and the Disney Corp. development, Celebration, in nearby Orlando. Too many subjects — black literature, minstrelsy, pop culture, the need for myths, and the pronouncements of Disney CEO Michael Eisner — crowd Rymer's argument that our “authentic history” is represented in “unglamorous” towns like Eatonville, rather than corporate-designed and -controlled towns like Celebration. No matter how much money Disney developers spent on “traditional” architecture and shrubbery, they couldn't imagineer a civic culture.

FORTUNATELY, AMERICAN BEACH BEGINS AND ENDS with the extravagant presence of Betsch, sister of former Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, and great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis. Betsch reigns over the long middle story of the book, its pinnacle. Her wealth and privilege vanished after she gave away her fortune to environmental causes. Today she stalks Amelia Island wearing odd raiment; the fingernails on her left hand are several feet long; stiff gray hair falls below her waist like topiary; black lace with a political button on the front is tied around her forehead. She lives homeless on the beach, claiming only a chaise longue as residence. In her pained, aphoristic wisdom, in her indigence, in her past glory as an acclaimed soprano in Europe's opera halls, in her flamboyant crusades, especially to save her family legacy from the encroachment of tourist conglomerates — Betsch, like the book textured around her, magnificently twines together her love of nature, awe of history and the lucid consciousness of humanity. Her wild appearance and extreme behavior seem, in the final analysis, the product of a rare sanity.

The corruption of a Lewis heir combined with unremitting corporate development of prime beach land to gut Betsch's family monuments. Integration, too, loosed the pent-up desires of a black population that was eager for full identification with the America it had helped define. Black establishments lost many patrons to the mainstream and were unable to fill the vacuum with white customers; integration was a one-way street. But, Rymer astutely argues, it was the collapse in America of “the culture of memory” that encouraged the dissolution of A.L. Lewis' patrimony: his business, his resorts, his mansion and — most important — his ethic of service. American Beach shows that Betsch's loss is ours as well, along with too many other casualties from our rich, turbulent, inspiring past.

AMERICAN BEACH: A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory
By RUSS RYMER | HarperCollins | 337 pages | $25 hardcover

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