Financial Times: How Segregation Created a Black Eden


IDLEWILD, MICHIGAN—John Meeks apologises profusely for his grimy clothes. “I’ve been moving tree stumps with my tractor,” the 90 year-old says, as he dusts off his tan trousers and white t-shirt that reads, “Idlewild, Michigan: The Black Eden.” The spritely Mr. Meeks—who started summering in Idlewild in 1954 and later retired here— has, since the late spring, been building a small park to mark the centennial of the founding of what was once America’s largest black resort.  Giving a tour around Idlewild, a three hour drive northwest of Detroit, Mr. Meeks points out several spots of interest including the home of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open heart surgery in the US and the site—vacant since it burned down more than two decades ago— of the Paradise Club, which saw the likes of the Four Tops, Della Reese and the Temptations perform there. Stopping in front of a sprawling boarded up building, Mr. Meeks starts to chuckle. “This was the Casa Blanca Hotel where all the dignitaries would stay,” he says.  “One night the exotic dancer Lottie ‘The Body’ Tatum-Graves, who was just 16 at the time, jumped out of a second floor window during an after-hours party because she could not dare be caught under age.”

As people like Mr. Meeks will attest, Idlewild during its heyday was a crazy yet relaxed, fun and stimulating resort community –all built on the back of segregation. Up until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which outlawed segregation and discrimination, blacks in America were not allowed in most resorts and holidays spots where whites frequented (though many could afford to), so parallel vacation communities were established. Idlewild, which drew black Americans from cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, was the most popular and during its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, could draw upwards of 25,000 people during the summer. “If you were from a place like Detroit, having to know where you could and could not go, there was all this tension,” says Carlean Gill, who was a Fiesta Dolls dancer at the Paradise Club. “But once you got to that blinking street light and turned up into Idlewild, it was like ‘I am free.’”


However, once American blacks were legally free and could vacation wherever they wanted, Idlewild’s popularity waned and suffered a significant economic and population loss that has continued until today. But there is hope among many in the community that marking Idlewild’s centennial this summer—including holding various concerts, a golf tournament, an arts festival, formal and semi-formal balls and a reunion the last weekend in August—will reinvigorate interest again in Idlewild for people from all backgrounds. “The message we are trying to send out is that Idlewild is not dead, it has just been dormant,” says Hubert Brandon, a consultant with the Idlewild Community Development Corporation (ICDC).


Idlewild was set up in 1912 specifically as a black resort community by four white couples, who, noting that new economic and social opportunities were opening up for black Americans, purchased 2,700 acres of woodland dotted around five lakes. They built cottages and a clubhouse and were soon attracting lawyers, doctors and business owners from across the Midwest. Some of the notable early investors included W.E.B. Dubois—a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—Madame C.J. Walker, a cosmetics entrepreneur reputed to have been the first black American millionaire and novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Idlewild quickly became connected to the New Negro Movement. “It was the black elite, the new attitude they had and Idlewild became a site of cultural and intellectual development,” says Ronald J. Stephens, an author and professor of African American studies at Ohio University. “It was a place to escape racism but there was also an interracial class angle, to be far enough away from the working class.” But after World War II, the class landscape in Idlewild changed; a new black middle class was developing, thanks to things like the booming car industry and urban renewal. With the rise of Motown, this new middle class craved to not only go swimming and fishing—but to be entertained. “During the 1950s and 1960s it becomes a different place,” says Mr. Stephens. “Idlewild enters the era of entertainment.”


Sarah Vaughan, B.B. King, Jackie Wilson, Lon Fontaine, Dinah Washington, The Spinners, T-Bone Walker and countless others performed in Idlewild in those two decades (Louis Armstrong owned a cottage but there is no confirmation that he ever played here) and Idlewild gained the moniker “the Apollo of the Midwest.” Many of these artists—some whom were already well known and others who were just starting out— performed at several of the local clubs including the Paradise, where music promoter Arthur Braggs was in charge of booking acts. Mr. Braggs, who died in 1992, would scout artists across the US and bring them to Idlewild in the summers and in the off-season, he would take the Arthur Braggs’ Idlewild Revue on tour across the US, Canada and Mexico to keep up the musical promotion of the resort. “My dad put on a production that allowed some of these acts to get signed with Motown,” says his daughter, Nichole Braggs, who is planning the reunion at the end of August. “While you cannot say there would not be one without the other, I think Idlewild definitely helped step up artists’ professionalism and understanding of what it took to be successful as an entertainer.” The actress and singer Della Reese, who performed in Idlewild every summer from 1953 to 1960, says she has very fond memories of her time there. “It provided things for me—for people of color—to experience things we were not necessarily comfortable experiencing somewhere else,” she reminisces. “In Vegas, I could sing in places, but I could not eat there or sleep there or sit in the lobby. Idlewild was altogether different, I could do anything I wanted to do. It was a stepping stone to things when we had nothing else to stand on.”


It’s hoped that the centennial could be something of a stepping-stone for Idlewild in terms of investment and getting people to come back—or discover—the area. A few hotels have reopened, there is now a restaurant, a grocery store and talks are taking place between locals and state officials to create everything from a heritage hiking trail to history and entertainment museums. “I want to spend the rest of my time promoting Idlewild,” says Mr. Meeks. “I want to get Idlewild moving again.”


 the original of this story was published in the Financial Times in August 2012

photo courtesy of Carlean Gill