Conservationists of Color: Black History Month Edition
George Washington Carver
Through education and hard work, George Washington Carver became one of the most famous American scientists and inventors of all time. The formerly enslaved man turned agricultural researcher is most known for his work with the peanut, inventing over 300 products with peanuts, including paints, dyes, medicine, and soap. Carver’s quest to “help the farthest man down” motivated his research, as he hoped to help poor black farmers with little land reap agricultural success.
Due to his work, Carver gained national respect and notoriety and had the honor to meet with three American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt, and was the first African American to be honored with a national monument. Additionally, Carver began working for the Tuskegee Institute in 1896, soon establishing the Agricultural Institute at the University.
George Washington Carver laid the foundation for much of our modern environmental beliefs as he saw the importance of humankind preserving the resources that nature provides us.
“Man must take the initiative in using nature to provide sustainable food systems that will help to alleviate hunger, encourage local participation and activism, and to safeguard and control our local food and water systems.”
MaVynee “The Beach Lady” Betsch
MaVynee Oshun Betsch was an international opera singer turned environmental activist known for using every resource at her disposal to preserve American Beach, a 40-mile beach in northwest Jacksonville that was once a Jim Crow era vacation attraction for African Americans.
Betsch’s motivations to protect American Beach were great, as developers at the time were looking to exploit the historically significant land that served Black beach communities who were barred by law from non-Black beaches. Betsch’s great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, was instrumental in founding American Beach in 1935 and cofounding the Afro-American Insurance Company, making him Florida’s first Black millionaire. Pride in her great-grandfather’s accomplishments and spending much of her childhood on the beach left a positive impression of Betsch, as it did so many others that visited it. Black celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Joe Louis, and others who would travel from far and wide for a comfortable place to enjoy beach life without discrimination.
Betsch left Florida as a teen to train as an opera singer at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, leading to performing throughout Europe and a promising career. As Hurrican Dora leveled much of American Beach in 1964, the civil rights movement removed many of the restrictions that made her family establish the beach in the first place. MaVynee began to feel the beach was calling her home and did just that, doing all she could to conserve it.
In 1975, Betsch moved back to her grandfather’s beach house, fighting vigorously to protect American Beach by any means. She donated generously to environmental organizations, eventually allocating her entire inheritance and income to preserve American Beach, ultimately selling her beach house to live on the beach she loved so much and labeling herself “The Beach Lady.” After a hard fight to prevent its development, a beautiful dune Betsch named “Na Na” was purchased by a developer but ultimately donated to the National Parks Service in her honor. Betsch died of cancer in 2005, but let us not forget her extraordinary contributions to conservation and her admirable philosophy on life.
“Live simply so that others may simply live.”-MaVynee “The Beach Lady” Betsch
Next entry on Friday, February 18, 2022.