Michigan's 'Black Eden': A short history of Idlewild

"In the era of Black Lives Matter, revitalizing Idlewild while preserving its history is more vital than ever."

When Detroiter and self-proclaimed "city girl" Tinisha Brugnone first visited Idlewild in 2018, she'd never been to a rural area before – let alone one steeped in decades of history as a Black recreational, intellectual, and cultural center.

 

"I didn't even know that Idlewild was a real place in Michigan," says Brugnone, who would go on to launch the Idlewild International Film Festival there just one year later. "So when I visited, I just was really captivated by how magical it was, and how quiet and serene."

Courtesy Idlewild International Film Festival.

 

Idlewild, an unincorporated community in Yates Township in Michigan's northwestern Lower Peninsula, was a thriving Black resort town, known as "the Black Eden," for most of the first half of the 20th century. Since the era of the civil rights movement, many of the community's hotels, cottages, and clubs have fallen into disrepair, although recent initiatives at the state and local level have sought to revitalize the community. But Idlewild still holds deep significance for many Black visitors.

 

"When ... you see the blinking lights at Broadway and US-10, you know you're in Idlewild and you get this feeling," says Ronald Stephens, a Purdue University professor who has written two books about Idlewild's history. "I don't know if it's totally psychological, if it's totally social or cultural or what it is, but you get this feeling of relief."

 

History and heyday

 

By Stephens' research, when Idlewild was first established in 1912, it was only the third resort in America catering to Black visitors. Segregation was still in full effect at the time, and safe recreational options for Black families were extremely limited. Idlewild was founded by a group of white developers, some from Michigan and some from Chicago, who saw an opportunity in what Stephens describes as "an era of upward mobility, a growing Black middle class with education and some disposable income."

 

"These developers weren't totally out for a profit for themselves," he says. "Although they were businessmen, they understood that there was a Black economy. They understood that there were Black intellectuals and professionals who, like white America, needed rest and relaxation."

Idlewild Access Park Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

Although white people established Idlewild, Black people quickly took the lead in shaping it. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a Black surgeon known for performing the first successful, documented pericardium surgery in the U.S., first bought property in Idlewild in 1915. Williams retired to Idlewild and became a major landowner and leader in the community. He co-founded the Idlewild Improvement Association, which acquired property from the white developers and would later sell property to prominent Black Americans including W.E.B. DuBois and Madam C.J. Walker.

 

Stephens says the numbers of visitors, year-round residents, and developments "just [kept] growing and growing and growing" in Idlewild, even through the Great Depression, thanks largely to the publicity the community received through the Black press at the time. But Idlewild's biggest boom came after World War II, as the Detroit auto industry and America in general prospered. Idlewild became a major entertainment hub, hosting performances by Black megastars from Della Reese to Jackie Wilson to the Temptations to Aretha Franklin in the '50s and '60s.

 

"If you were a Black entertainer, ... you did Idlewild," Stephens says. "It was like how in the '60s, if you were to be recognized in entertainment, you had to be approved at the Apollo at Harlem. Well, the same dynamic happened in Idlewild."

 

In fact, Idlewild became known as "the Summer Apollo of Michigan." By the '50s, Stephens says, the community was "so packed" that it would draw 25,000 visitors in a given weekend. But as Black Americans entered a new era of advancement, the Black Eden would enter a new era of decline.

 

Downfall

 

While Idlewild provided safety, relaxation, and community for Black Americans in its heyday, it also arose out of a necessity created by racist federal and local policies. Stephens says "segregation is what built Idlewild," and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 turned out to be the community's undoing as a major destination. Suddenly, Black Americans were legally allowed to vacation anywhere they wanted – and many of the new accommodations available to them were better-kept than those at Idlewild.

Flamingo Club. Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

"The entrepreneurs [in Idlewild] were not prepared for what was happening," Stephens says. "... They didn't truly understand what that meant, so they weren't reinvesting in Idlewild. Meanwhile, in Black America, something that had been denied – to go to another hotel, Howard Johnson or something – ... now these things are open to them. So to some degree, Black America abandoned its own institutions. That includes the consumer and the investor."

 

In the late '60s, Idlewild began to fall into disrepair, creating the near-ghost town that persists today.

 

"Things started slowly deteriorating," Stephens says. "People abandoned homes that had been inherited to them by not paying taxes. Businesses started shutting down or were torn down or burnt down. ... It was a whole other set of problems."

 

Revitalization and preservation

 

Many of Idlewild's buildings are still unused or blighted, but Stephens says he has "slowly ... witnessed revitalization-type change" since he first visited the area in 1992. Yates Township still boasts a population of 785, tourists still visit every summer, and local residents have joined forces with the state and other passionate individuals to preserve and rejuvenate the community.

 

The Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center opened in 2003, creating a new destination for visitors to learn about the community's history. Blight removal efforts have successfully cleaned up some of the dilapidated buildings in the area. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm established the Idlewild Centennial Commission during her tenure, and the state provided grant funding for revitalization in Idlewild in 2009. A 2008 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund also funded the establishment of a new accessible boat launch for non-motorized watercraft on Lake Idlewild, which has been used for youth kayaking lessons by a group called the Chicago Idlewilders.

Idlewild Access Park Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

Yates Township Supervisor Colleen Carrington-Atkins, who recalls vacationing in Idlewild with her family when she was growing up in the late '40s and early '50s, has big plans for the continued revitalization of the community. She says the township is working to improve the beach and restore the historic Flamingo Club on Williams Island, the community's signature natural landmark. She also hopes to encourage the development of a business district by activating an economic development corporation for the area. The township is currently developing a new master plan and a five-year recreation plan that will establish new goals for the community.

 

Carrington-Atkins says Idlewild has already benefited significantly from the establishment of new events, such as the Summer Oasis musical glamping tent festival and the Idlewild International Film Festival.
 

"Most of the things we've done are just promoting the area through encouraging people to come to various events," she says. "And as a result of that, we have a lot of new growth from the next generation coming from different places to build or to purchase in Idlewild and make places for their children to come."

 

Brugnone's inspirational first experience at Idlewild prompted her to launch the film festival there. The festival was offered online only this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Brugnone plans to bring the physical event back to Idlewild when it's safe to do so. She envisions Idlewild becoming a "beautiful resort town" that celebrates African history and culture while welcoming visitors of all races.



Lamont Johnson at the Idlewild Post Office. Photo by Doug Coombe."My big dream is to see it become the next big Sundance," she says. "Sundance was built out of nothing in the middle of nowhere. We have the potential there to do the exact same thing."

 

Carrington-Atkins says that in the era of Black Lives Matter, revitalizing Idlewild while preserving its history is more vital than ever.

 

"I think it's so important for young people, young Black youth, to be able to come somewhere that gives them a sense of pride," she says.

 

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.
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