These days, young black people troop to the beaches of Miami, Florida, or to the outskirts of Massachusetts and New York to places like Martha’s Vineyard and the Poconos for vacation. But there was once a time when they only had one option for summer vacation; when only one destination embraced them as vacationers.
This place was Idlewild, Michigan, fondly known as “Black Eden”. Founded in 1912, it was the most successful resort in the Midwest from 1912 to the early 1960s. Why? It was a place where black people could come and not have to worry about not being served or not being allowed to use the hotel or the motel or the facilities, as one woman told NPR.
In fact, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Idlewild was one of the few resorts in the country where African-Americans were allowed to vacation and purchase property. It was within driving distance from Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. It was also nestled among Michigan’s national forest, Manistee National Forest, making it “invisible enough so black Americans could retreat from the ugliness of discrimination and Jim Crow.”
Interestingly, white people built and marketed Idlewild to black people. According to historians, Idlewild came into fruition after some white developers observed that there was a growing Black middle class after Emancipation. This group of Black people was professionals and small business owners, many living in urban centers around the American Midwest. They had the financial means to travel for leisure but racial segregation prevented them from vacationing or partaking in recreational activities in the area.
The four white developers and their wives saw this as an opportunity and organized the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC). After securing land rights, they obtained the title to the land and began organizing excursions to attract middle-class African American professionals from the Midwestern cities. They also began marketing it to the upper-class individuals within the Black community including prominent leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP; Madam C.J. Walker, hair entrepreneur; and president of Fisk University, Lemuel L. Foster, who all owned property in Idlewild.
By the 1920s, Black middle-class people joined in the Idlewild fun en masse. Big name artist like B.B. King, Della Reese, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin came to perform there.
As one vacationer told NPR, “There were night clubs, after-hours joints, hotels, motels, beauty shops, barber shops [and] restaurants…That was when people brought their good clothes to Idlewild because … there was a lot of nightlife.”
As the New York Post summarized profoundly, “For blacks in America, until the 1960s, this was the premier getaway spot in the country, a place they could call home for a week or two — or all summer long. At Idlewild, their dreams came true”.
Unfortunately, Idlewild’s vibrancy started to diminish in 1964. Once African Americans could attend other resorts and recreational centers through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned discrimination, the need for Idlewild’s safe, congregating ground was no longer necessary. Coupled with the recession of the 1970s, migration from, and unemployment in the area, the town’s wealth and well-being declined significantly.
Today, the community serves as a vacation destination and retirement community for a few. Leaders of the community are trying to resuscitating the once lively town through events and attractions. They are hopeful that more information about this African-American landmark will draw in crowds, including this new generation of African-American millennials who are passionate about their history and heritage.