By Michael Card
Nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, a black man named after him would go on to be the first black millionaire in Florida.
Abraham Lincoln Lewis, known as “A.L.” Lewis, was born in Madison County, Fla., in 1865.
Lewis was a smart boy who intended to stay in school, but dropped out after the sixth grade because his family needed his support financially.
Lewis and his family moved to Jacksonville in 1880, where he received a job as a water boy at a sawmill in East Jacksonville.
Although his initial position did not seem promising, Lewis rapidly advanced because of his intelligence and leadership abilities. He was quickly promoted and became a foreman, making him the highest paid black person at the mill.
While working at the lumber mill, Lewis saved enough money to invest in Jacksonville’s first black owned-and-operated shoe store.
In 1901, Lewis joined with six other prominent blacks to found the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, which provided health and burial insurance at an affordable cost to blacks. Because of segregation, most white-owned companies would not insure blacks.
The insurance company became extremely successful, and Lewis was eventually named president in 1919.
During the Jim Crow era of segregation, Lewis’ financial success allowed him the opportunity to help other less-privileged blacks.
He founded the Lincoln Golf and Country Club in 1926. It was the only black country club in Jacksonville at the time.
In 1935 the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company under Lewis’s leadership purchased a beachfront parcel in Nassau County for blacks to vacation, which he named American Beach. At the time, most other public beaches in the area were closed to blacks.
Although it was primarily blacks who visited American Beach, it was never intended to be a segregated vacation spot, according to Yuwnus Asami, exhibit director and curator at the American Beach Museum in Fernandina Beach.
“The whole purpose of naming it American Beach was because it was supposed to be for all Americans,” Asami said.
American Beach quickly became a top tourist spot for blacks and was visited by notable people such as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Joe Lewis and Hank Aaron.
Not only had Lewis envisioned a beachfront vacation spot, however, he had also dreamed of a community of reasonably priced homes surrounding it. Over time, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs were also built nearby.
American Beach continued to grow and thrive throughout the mid 20th century.
“I think you could put it as one of his greatest accomplishments,” Asami said. “He did so much with the Afro-American Insurance Company, securing the land for Stanton School and the Masonic Temple, but one of his greatest accomplishments was American Beach, because it was the place to be in its heyday.”
Outside of his business endeavors, Lewis was a warm person who enjoyed helping people.
He spent 54 years volunteering in various positions at Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church on Franklin Street in East Jacksonville. Under his leadership, the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company opened three black cemeteries in Northwest Jacksonville.
Lewis also contributed to black colleges, including Edward Waters College and Bethune-Cookman College. In addition, Lewis helped found the Negro Business League and National Negro Insurance Association.
“I was told he liked to give out five-dollar bills to kids if they were good because it had Lincoln on there,” Asami said. “He would drive a Lincoln car too.”
Lewis died in 1947 and was buried in the family mausoleum at Memorial Cemetery located on Moncrief Road
Today Jacksonville remembers Lewis with the A.L. Lewis Community Center located on the Northside.