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A.L. Lewis: Florida's first black millionaire remembered

Black millionaire who founded Florida's Afro-American Life Insurance Co. in 1901 remembered
Image: Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole speaks at the African Art Awards Dinner at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in 2017.
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole speaks at the African Art Awards Dinner at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in 2017.Cheriss May / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — They called him Fafa.

A.L. Lewis loomed large in the Jacksonville childhood of great-granddaughter Johnnetta Betsch Cole and her two siblings. With only an elementary school education, he helped found the Afro-American Life Insurance Co. in 1901 and became Florida's first African-American millionaire. In 1935 he and his business partners established American Beach in Nassau County, a vacation destination for African-Americans during the days of segregation.

But it was more than his accomplishments that shaped them. It was what he taught them on a personal level, particularly at Sunday family dinners at his house.

"Fafa would ask the same question every Sunday," said Cole, who will receive the A.L. Lewis Historical Society's inaugural Legacy Award at an upcoming event. "What are the three B's you must live your life with? Say the three B's."

Wisely using three books as their guide — the Bible, their school books and their bank books — were key to growing up in the segregated South and becoming successful, purposeful adults, he told them.

"He taught us it was our responsibility . . . not just for our own lives, but to help to change the world," she said. "He was very progressive."

Cole, now 82, took his words to heart. She went on to become an anthropologist and educator, served as president of two different colleges and director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art and is currently president of the National Council of Negro Women in Washington.

Receiving an award in his name, she said, "means the world to me."

"When I look back on my life I say definitively A.L. Lewis was . . . a major inspiration," she said. "Day after day I do my best to do right, to do what I was told to do."

The society had scheduled a series of events this week to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the American Beach Community Center and Museum. The kickoff was a Thursday gala — hosted by actor, director and activist Danny Glover — honoring Cole. But the entire celebration has been postponed because of Hurricane Dorian. A new date is to be announced in a week or so.

"Dr. Cole walks in the spirit of her great-grandfather, who inspired many with hope and dreams," said event organizer Carol Alexander. "Her wisdom, leadership, grace and exemplary work will be recognized and celebrated, as we also celebrate the rich history and legacy of African-American life in Northeast Florida, specifically, American Beach."

Cole's family provides a through-line for American Beach and the museum.

Lewis co-founded American Beach, and Cole's late sister, MaVynee Betsch, an opera singer-turned historian, activist and environmentalist known as the "Beach Lady," led the charge to save what's left of the site from development, get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places and establish the museum.

They are all descendants of plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and his African-born wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, once a slave who ran a cotton plantation at Fort George Island in Duval County.

Meanwhile, Cole and her husband, who live in Fernandina Beach, plan to build their retirement home on American Beach.

She's come full circle.

"It's thrilling," she said.

In between were decades following the example of her great-grandfather, working to "do right," and that of two other esteemed mentors, civil rights activists Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height.

Lewis introduced Cole to his close friend Bethune, who founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. And Cole met Height through the National Council of Negro Women, where Height was president for decades and Cole was a member before assuming the leadership role herself.

"Two women who are so associated with civil rights and women's rights, it's humbling to follow them," Cole said. "I am speaking to you now from the office where Dr. Height sat over 40 years . . . An iconic leader, it is humbling sitting looking at her incredible image."

But she was never intimidated by Bethune or Height's respective resumes.

"If you're intimidated, you don't act. You know you've got to carry on the work," she said.

She now revels in mentoring two particular younger women as they carry on the work.

One of them is close friend Alexander, a founding director of Jacksonville's Ritz Theatre and Museum, who also helped open the American Beach Museum and recently helped Liberia reopen its national museum. The other is niece Peri Frances Betsch of Atlanta, an educator and lecturer and daughter of Cole's brother, John Betsch, a jazz musician in Paris.

Alexander is the "spiritual daughter" of MaVynee Betsch — "She is as close as anyone could come," Cole said — and Peri Betsch "represents the future."

Cole herself is now retired from the workforce — the National Council presidency is "a full-time responsibility but not a paid job," she said — but not retired from making an impact. She calls herself a "teacher and a learner," citing the African proverb that says, "She who teaches must learn and she who learns must teach."

"I retired four times. I should be ashamed, I got an F-minus in retirement," she said. "I hope this doesn't sound puffed up, but it was more a sense that I can do more. Why should I not do more?

"Being engaged is important. It is important to continue to be what I call a social justice activist," Cole said. "I am doing my part . . . We have no choice but to keep trying."