Idlewild: A ‘Black Eden’ For African Americans

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    Today, for the most part, Black people can go anywhere they choose, live wherever they feel comfortable — and vacation at any resort that appeals to them.

    But that, of course, was not always the case, and those dark days are not that far off in the distance.

    The Black middle class — people of means with a disposable income — has long been a staple in the Black community. But their incomes, however substantial, and status, however high ranking, did not shield them from the ugly sting of racism, which is likely to never be completely rooted out in this country.

    Even so, the adage still rings true: “We aren’t where we want to be, but thank God we aren’t where we used to be.”

    Like any other ethnic group, African Americans — then identified as Negroes and colored — enjoyed vacationing. But the resort owners made it clear that they were not welcome.

    However, there was one of few exceptions in this area: Idlewild, located in northwestern Michigan, close to the southeastern border of Lake County. And in Idlewild, African Americans were welcome to purchase property as well, and many did. One of them was Madame C.J. Walker, famous businesswoman and self-made millionaire.

    DESPITE THE unquestionable wrongness of racial discrimination, not to mention the ungodliness of it, the situation made the Black community more tightly knit. In a manner of speaking, it was “unity born of necessity.” Looking out for others came more naturally then.

    From the mid-1960s dating all the way back to 1912, Idlewild was often affectionately referred to as “the Black Eden.”

    The number of people who visited the resort during a typical summer during the peak years was impressive — 25,000 was not uncommon. They would have a grand time camping, boating, horseback riding, roller skating, etc., and just socializing.

    And then there was the nightlife. The clubs were big attractions and the foremost Black stars in show business made a point of being booked for performances at Idlewild.

    Interestingly, the basic format of Motown Record Corporation’s famous Motortown Revue was adapted from the shows presented at Idlewild. The fast-paced Motown shows featured a full orchestra (usually led by Choker Campbell), a witty emcee (Bill Murray) and as many as eight acts. The 1963 lineup, for example, featured the Miracles, Mary Wells, Little Stevie Wonder, Martha & the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.

    The Four Tops, although among Motown’s top sellers, were never a part of the Motortown Revue — because they didn’t want to be. They came to Motown older than the other artists and had far more say-so than the others as to what they would or would not do.

    THEY WERE also seasoned professionals, having worked the nation’s finest clubs with the legendary Billy Eckstine, just the type of act club owners in Idlewild loved to book. Naturally, when Eckstine performed there, the Four Tops accompanied him.

    A virtual who’s who of Black entertainment made appearances in Idlewild, including Dinah Washington, Bill Doggett (“Honky Tonk”), George Kirby, Roy Hamilton, Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Wilson, Della Reese, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Al Hibbler, Moms Mabley, Sammy Davis Jr., Fats Waller, “Lottie the Body,” Cab Calloway and too many others to mention here.

    Idlewild was also a place where businessmen, businesswoman and organizations met to strategize, plan, review, etc.

     

    Sadly, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which was of crucial importance and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Idlewild slipped badly as African Americans quickly began going elsewhere for summer fun. Much was gained, but something was lost.

    However, it continues to live on. In 2000, an organization called the Idlewild African American Chamber of Commerce it was founded for the purpose of promoting existing businesses and attracting new ones.

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