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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with MaVynee Betsch, November 22, 2002. Interview R-0301. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A self-contained, self-reliant community in Jacksonville, Florida

Betsch describes the "completely self-contained" segregated black community of her childhood. The black community in Jacksonville was isolated but self-reliant, funding their own funerals, treating their sick, and creating their own institutions, such as the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, to meet the needs of its members. As she reflects on the community of her youth, she remembers her great-grandfather, who sought to foster pride in blacks' African heritage and an awareness of the significance of their everyday activities.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with MaVynee Betsch, November 22, 2002. Interview R-0301. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KIERAN TAYLOR:
So you come from a prominent, an important family of Jacksonville.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Of course. Yes, my great grandfather Abraham, what else, that name. He'd have to have that name. Abraham Lincoln Lewis was born in 1865 in Madison, Florida, and he was one of the seven founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, 1901. Don't forget now. There was no way to bury black folks in those days. They'd pass around a hat, several of them got together at Bethel Baptist Church, that beautiful church downtown Jacksonville. Each man put up a hundred dollars and they started the burial society. Well, I mean we were it. It's hard for you to conceive what, how completely self-contained that world was. We could go weeks and never see another white person. We lived in an area called Sugar Hill. There was a park and then the white folks usually, there's a railroad or whatever that divides the rich and poor, the white and black or whatever they used, the tracks. Well, for us it was the park. On the other side was Springfield. You'd see some white folks through there, but I mean this wasn't, our world was completely self-contained. The Afro sponsored clinics for the children whenever they got their premiums with the insurance company. The Afro sponsored the big dance at Christmas time. The Afro, once the beach was here, it was a big picnic in August, which was the social event. Of course there was my dad who was, oh God, I mean, don't forget now this little so-called country boy from North Carolina is marrying into money. I guess, bless his heart, he had to prove his worth. I mean, Daddy did everything. He, well, he was vice president of the company. He was what do you call that, the manager over all the districts. At one time we were all the way to Texas, Texas. He did people's income taxes. He was an architect. Oh man we didn't have one kind. We had two. But it was a world, when I think of the way the wealthy and supposedly poorer people live now. It wasn't like that. Our house was always like Grand Central Station. People were there. It was never a question of we were in a different class or whatever from other people. The managers were spending the night at our house, and of course their children would stay there and sleeping in our room and—
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So there was a lot of activity.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Oh social, the world. I mean, it's just, I mean, it's almost embarrassing to see some black people now who have moved out into the suburbs now and who literally would not be caught dead in supposedly African-American areas of the city now. It's just, it's a different breed now. Absolutely. We were together. I only heard of the NAACP and so forth when I went to a white college. I mean, we took care of our own. Everybody was there although we had a maid. My great grandfather had a chauffeur. I love this story of—I tell this all the time. He would ride in the front seat. Okay. All right. As children we would be in the back seat. We're driving to this filling station, and of course he's going to pull out the money to pay for the gas. What would he pull out? He didn't know I guess, just pull out the first thing you came. The twenty-dollar bill. You know who's on the twenty? That God awful massacre creep, Jackson.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Jackson is on the twenty.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
He takes the twenty and puts it back into his pocket, gives the chauffeur directions. We go to the next little store to get change so he'd have four fives. Who's on the five? Lincoln. Even money, this man was so, he must've been a philosopher in a past life. I mean he was so deep into, he went to Africa in the '20s, and he used to sit on this [unclear] he'd sit there and he said if you keep walking you'll be in Africa. He'd tell us about how the black kings went north. He never went past the sixth grade. He was steeped into his culture, and you know how Africans love to use a lot of proverbs. He would ask us things like, one of his favorite proverbs was the one, I think it's Ethiopian, when spider webs—let me get it right now. Tie up, when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Oh yeah.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Don't you like that one?
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Yeah.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
It's beautiful. Then he'd tell us about the fact that in the middle of business, what word is in the middle of business?
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Sin.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Sin, absolutely. And he'd tell us if it's not a cause, it's sin. That's the reason he went back to get those four five-dollar bills. He said everything you do, you're making a statement. If you'd given that twenty-dollar bill to that man, it's almost like you're condoning that. I mean, how dare you this man—oh God. And the fact that they called it Jacksonville, I can't—. It should be called Johnsonville after Andrew, James Weldon Johnson. But anyway, so was my upbringing. So was my upbringing with this man. Every Sunday we ate dinner with him. We went to church. He was of course, my mother was an organist.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
By the time you're aware, he's seventy-five years old, right.
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Well, he died when I was ten. He died when I was, that's my great grandfather. He died when I was ten.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So if he died in forty-five, he died at eighty was it?
MA VYNNE BETSCH:
Eighty, it was '47. It was '47 when he died. But as children, he was such a, I feel sorry for children who have their parents, grandparents in nursing homes or whatever. It's so said because oh the memories of this man are so important to me. I can still hear his voice. We'd go to, there was this ritual. You ate; you went to church; you went to the cemetery. You should go to the cemetery. It's out there on Moncrief in Jacksonville. I have a marker there. From there we'd go to the beach. This was from Easter to Labor Day. It was that ritual. As children we looked forward to this, seeing him.