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Separate But Equal

AMERICAN BEACH: A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory;\o7 By Russ Rymer\f7 ;\o7 (HarperCollins: 304 pp., $24)\f7

November 22, 1998|TAMAR JACOBY | Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and author of "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration."

"American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory" tells the stories of two little-known pockets where black meets white in rapidly developing northern Florida: Amelia Island and the outskirts of Orlando near Disney World. But in truth the book is less a narrative than three meditations about a subject much bigger than race: the conflict, in contemporary American life, between the pull of commerce and the thirst for something more authentic--for history, memory, heritage, personal integrity and rooted culture.

It's an ambitious topic, and Russ Rymer brings to it an impressive array of skills. Besides his eye for telling detail and character, he's a supple, sometimes dazzling writer, and he cares passionately about the important question he's tackled. Yet in the end, "American Beach" is a frustrating book: here close to poetic, there baroque and overwritten, at once rich in insights and maddeningly reductive.

The first of the three essays is another rendition of a familiar story: An unarmed black man shot to death in ambiguous circumstances by white police--in this case on Amelia Island in 1989. Rymer's reconstruction of the event is vividly dramatic. He understands that stories like these have no easy heroes or obvious villains: In this case, victim Dennis Wilson was drunk and confrontational and had a long history of violent run-ins with police. Yet the lesson Rymer draws from the episode is familiar to the point of banality--that blacks and whites see incidents like this through different prisms. And in the end, he sells his own sense of ambiguity short by unequivocally endorsing one perspective, siding just a little too glibly with the black community against the cops.

The second essay, which makes up the bulk of the book, is a more original story, actually, set of stories. The central character is MaVynee Betsch, the eccentric great-granddaughter of Florida's first black millionaire, A.L. Lewis, a patriarchal entrepreneur who built one of the South's most successful black insurance companies.

Betsch is an extraordinary though ultimately murky character, highly educated, cultivated (at one point in her life an acclaimed opera singer), now homeless, living on the beach on Amelia Island, with 18-inch fingernails and a long train of matted hair adorned with political buttons. Intriguing as she is in her own right, for Rymer, Betsch is also an emblem of something larger. Alongside and mirroring the story of Betsch's decline are the decline of the black resort town, American Beach, founded by her great-grandfather on Amelia Island; the decline of Lewis' firm, the Afro-American Life insurance Co.; the decline of the historic black community in nearby Jacksonville; and the decline of what Rymer sees as another era's instructive values, an ethos in which social responsibility was more important than commerce.

If all this sounds a little complicated, it is, though for the most part it's woven together in a masterly braid. In its heyday, before integration, black Jacksonville was a bustling, self-sufficient community. The Afro-American Life Insurance Co. (known as the Afro) was its most important institution, but the enclave also had its own newspaper, transit system and every variety of business and cultural enterprise. Working-poor and middle-class blacks lived next to each other in an orderly, cohesive community. Both Rymer and the blacks he interviewed remember this period (roughly the first half of the century) as a golden era, and the locals look back at their summers at American Beach--founded and financed by the Afro--as among their happiest moments and a pinnacle of black achievement.

It all came crashing down in the 1970s, for a variety of reasons. Integration played a major part, but it wasn't the whole story. The Afro happened to self-destruct in the same period, torpedoed by internal financial shenanigans, and the residents of American Beach, who failed to recognize the value of their real estate, undersold much of it to corporate developers.

Rymer, ever searching for lessons, draws a number of morals from this story--some perceptive, some oversimplified. As do many who look back today at black life before integration, he tends to romanticize that era and overlook the way most ordinary people had to live: the grinding poverty and degradation, the limited horizons and stunted lives. The urban middle-class milieu he focuses on was only a tiny corner of black Florida and far from typical. (At the time the Afro was founded, 80% of Southern blacks still scraped a living off the land, most of them close to illiterate, trapped by crushing debt, without property or prospects of any kind--let alone beach houses.) Even Rymer's picture of middle-class Jacksonville is unduly rosy, so taken with the cohesiveness of the community that it ignores the claustrophobia and the suppressed rage that often came with it.

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