February 28, 2018

What’s Next for Idlewild, Michigan’s Black Eden?

It was known as the Black Eden, and at its height in the 1950s and ‘60s, more than 25,000 African Americans would travel from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis each summer to visit its 2,700 acres of lakes and western Michigan wilderness for intellectual stimulation, partying, and a sense of community. This was Idlewild.

“If you were a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, an educator, and you had the income to travel either by train or auto, [Idlewild] was a place that you wanted to be,” says Dr. Ronald Stephens, a professor of 20th-century African American history and culture at Ohio University and author of Idlewild: The Rise, Decline and Rebirth of a Unique African-American Resort Town. “The idea of having that sense of community, independence, and ownership was a really big deal in black America.”

Founded in 1912 by four white couples who saw the need for resorts for the growing African American middle and upper middle class, Idlewild became a place for intellectual and political interaction among prominent members of the 1920s African American community, including William Pickens and W.E.B. Du Bois.

But the increasingly rapid growth of the working black middle class after World War II, particularly with the rise of the auto industry in the Midwest, created a shift in the culture of Idlewild.

“By the 1950s and '60s, the crowd that was coming up to Idlewild, though they were educated, had a different idea of vacation,” says Stephens. “They were going up there to have fun and party.”

Paradise Club and Paradise Gardens nightclub in Idlewild, Michigan, c. 1942.

photo by: UpNorth Memories/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Paradise Club and Paradise Gardens nightclub in Idlewild, Michigan, 1942.

And party they did. Several nightclubs hosted the best African American entertainers of the day, including Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, and Motown stars like the Four Tops. But more than entertainment, these shows were an opportunity for people to interact with the stars. “There was no way they could have done that in the city of Detroit,” Stephens says.

But by the mid-1960s Idlewild began to experience what would be 30 years of social and economic decline. The desegregation of previously all-white resorts by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, coupled with the sense by many middle class African Americans that they had “arrived,” led to large scale abandonment of the once-thriving resort, according to Stephens. That decline in popularity eventually opened the door for the growing presence of prostitutes, especially during deer-hunting season—an embarrassing truth exposed to the nation on the Johnny Carson Show on Thanksgiving Day, 1977.

Over the last twenty years, Idlewild has made small steps toward revitalizing itself, including identifying 35 historic structures along with recognizing the homes of Joe Louis and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, America’s first open-heart surgeon.

Dedication ceremony for historic Idlewild markers. Yates Township, Lake County, Michigan, 2009.

photo by: MI SHPO/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Historic Idlewild marker dedication ceremony in 2009.

The state of Michigan has also invested roughly $500 million in the resort’s leadership and partnered with 10 graduate students from Michigan State University (MSU) to create a 10-year strategic plan for the community. The plan was completed in 2013, and students at MSU have since built a traveling museum exhibit that pays homage to the community. It is currently stationed at Love’s Jazz and Arts Center in Omaha, Nebraska, through April 1, 2018.

“What we’d like to do is preserve the past but also to take that and move it forward to our future,” says Brandon.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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