On August 26th, 2020 the Fernandina Beach Observer reported that “First steps underway to bring healthy, safe water & sewer service to American Beach. The article reveals that American Beach is a history rich community founded by Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Lewis’ vision was self-sufficiency for those made dependent by centuries of chattel slavery. His actions countered racial segregation and Jim Crow laws that denied equal rights for African Americans. What would Mr. Lewis think of efforts put forth today by those supporting establishing a special district to be known as the “American Beach Water and Sewer District”? A.L Lewis would undoubtedly embrace progress for the African American community he founded, and more importantly would relish progress that preserved American Beach’s past and insured its future. But Mr. Lewis would be concerned about the proposed water and sewer district’s threat to the future of American Beach, a community dedicated to preserving community values of its past and planning for its future.
The proposed American Beach Water and Sewer District is absent any notion consistent with A.L. Lewis’ vision of progress. Is it progress when a small group of American Beach residents, in league with local government officials and private sector investors, propose a plan that not only strips the community of the right to control its destiny, but puts the financial burden upon them when the real beneficiaries are profit-seekers and taxing authorities?
Is it progress when a proposal with permanent impact on the future of American Beach contains not one word describing how this system preserves and perpetuates the history, values, and culture of the community? American Beach is an historic and vibrant community listed on the National Register of Historic Places, made possible by Annette Myers and Ruth Waters, former presidents of the American Beach Property Owners Association. American Beach is the cultural descendant of Franklin Town whose lineage dates to Spanish Florida. Founded by former slaves of the Harrison Plantation, Franklin Town has recently become a topic of historical interest. This history also links American Beach to ancient Guale culture, the ancestral lands of which were pivotal in the culture wars that helped eradicate chattel slavery in the U.S.
American Beach is now part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor1 and the National Park Service Timucuan Preserve, which, along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Key West boast the second highest dune system.
Has anyone from the Nassau County Government or the American Beach Property Owner’s Association who favor the proposed water and sewage district sought or obtained comment from any of these highly regarded federal entities about the negative impact the proposed district could have on the future of American Beach? American Beach needs the support of the entire Nassau County community if this cultural treasure is to remain viable against “progress” from development threats.
Progress for Whom?
The idea of a modern water and sewage system for American Beach is neither foreign nor objectionable to any of the property owners of this community. The idea of incurring debt amounting to as much as $13,000 per lot plus an $800.00 deposit, a possible property tax lien, and a monthly water and sewage bill is objectionable and beyond the means of many who may lose their property. Why have those so eager to protect this area from the threats of climate change and rising sea levels not targeted other communities along AIA and Scott Road, communities within a stone’s throw of American Beach, most of whom also rely on private wells and septic tanks?
What are the expected economic outcomes of the proposed district if developed, and who will profit? Many residents disagree that property owners at American Beach who helped developed the proposal speak for the majority of American Beach property owners. They neither speak for nor have legal authority to speak on behalf of the majority of American Beach property owners. How will the proposed district further the goal of historic preservation for American Beach? It is highly likely that the proposed district will be the “death blow” to the history, culture and values of American Beach. This community is singularly unique in culture, history, location and ethnic diversity. Any effort that threatens this uniqueness must be carefully evaluated.
Readers of the Fernandina Observer article should note that although few, not one of the written responses was favorable to the proposed district, neither was a direct descendant of A.L. Lewis with whom we spoke. The question must be asked as to how and why have county commissioners and a handful of self-appointed representatives of American Beach, hashed out a proposal with such a narrow and exploitative perspective? Was it a lack of representation by the majority of property owners, did they not consider less costly and culturally relevant alternatives? One attendee at the most recent property owners meeting described “an atmosphere of social intimidation”. We are told that opposition to the proposal must come in the form of a written letter. The default is that without such a statement a property owner is assumed to be in agreement. This requirement is ethically suspect, criminal in intent and avaricious at its core. Unfortunately, Nassau County Government has a checkered past related to American Beach and Franklin Town. The root of community suspicion began with Fernandina’s illegal importation of African slaves in the 19th century. More recently in the early 1990s local governmental corruption resulted in an administrative takeover of county zoning and permitting offices by the state of Florida. Lawlessness became a local embarrassment with the nationally reported criminal conviction of the sheriff of Nassau County on felony drug trafficking charges. The conviction was followed by a 17-year incarceration in federal prison by a sheriff who routinely authorized illicit drug sting operations at American Beach. American Beach has faced governmental exploitation via rising property taxes but indifference when real help is needed. There is no evidence of a proactive attitude or behavior by Nassau County Government toward American Beach, despite it having collected millions in tax revenue from this neglected community. The future of American Beach cannot be decided by entities, governmental or otherwise, whose past behavior reveal “they have not been a friend to this community”.
A Way Forward
Can less ominous outcomes with similar benefits promised by the proposed water and sewage district be achieved by different means, and if so, what value might these alternative efforts afford the American Beach community? The proposed district does not acknowledge or contribute to cultural and historic preservation. In the name of progress, the project should not adversely impact citizens who identify with its history. In contrast to its promise the proposed district will make American Beach a casualty of “progress”. We will be haunted by the past which is echoed in names such as Butler Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Atlantic Beach to name few. Would A. L. Lewis think this proposal represents progress? Absolutely not; neither do scores of other property owners at American Beach.
There’s an elephant in the room! American Beach already has a safe public water system, currently certified and approved by the Department of Environmental Regulation, St. Johns Water Management District, and the Public Service Commission. Upgrading this system and adding sewage treatment would eliminate the problems the proposed district intends to solve. Along with saving millions, such an approach would also insure compliance with historic preservation efforts, provide a lasting monument to A.L. Lewis’s vision and provide affordable safe water and sewage for property owners. It appears that profit motive more than community welfare is driving the proposal. Remove the profit motive from the equation and prosperity for all property owners will result, not just the few.
Proposals such as the one before property owners at American Beach only fuels contempt in a once vibrant and cohesive community. Those who support the views expressed in this letter2 encourage proponents of the existing proposal to be more creative and less self-centered in their thinking. We reject proposals that are a financial burden to many property owners when a viable alternative is available. Alternative partnerships and innovative ideas that utilize existing resources should be our focus. American Beach has a reservoir of human capital that includes experts in public and private finance, human behavior, law, education and training, hydroponics, aquaculture, engineering, grant writing and “honest hard work.” Most importantly, American Beach has a strong survival instinct that recognizes danger and opportunity when present, and acts accordingly to protect its residents and their shared values.
Real progress for American Beach will build upon its past, incorporate present-day realities and seek prosperity for the future. The way forward can build upon A.L. Lewis’ vision by fostering self-reliance and altruistic efforts that encourage economic progress. As a way forward, acting upon these values should satisfy the goals and desires of all stakeholders.
Submitted by Eugene Emory at the request, and on behalf of, numerous American Beach property owners2
1 The Gullah achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act“; it provided $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites in the Low Country relating to Gullah culture. The commission was reauthorized again in 2016. The Heritage Corridor extends from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service, with extensive consultation with the Gullah community
2 The following list of names is from a small sampling of American Beach Property Owners who have consented to have their names entered and are opposed to the current proposal to establish a Water and Sewage District at American Beach.
Linda P. Crawford
Carmen A. Emory
Carolyn Peterson Floyd
Alonzo A. McNealy
Adrienne Hartley Moore
Dr. Thomas Carlton Moore
Tony Peterson Mundy
Jannette Hartley Robinson
Phyllis Moore Wiley Esq.
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