IDLEWILD – Emma Jean Clark’s view from the front room of her family’s summer cottage is similar to that enjoyed by thousands of other Michigan residents fortunate enough to have one: A lake lying smooth as glass on a windless midweek day, framed by pine boughs and greenery. It’s a view Clark has been enjoying for nearly 80 summers, one she loves so much she makes the trip every year all the way from her home in Kansas City, Kan.
Clark’s memories, now – those are something different.
Idlewild is, or was, no ordinary Michigan summer colony. For years, some of the finest African-American musicians and performers of the 20th century, dancers and singers, showgirls and hoofers and jazzbos, all drawn to this northwest Michigan hamlet to play for the summer residents, nearly all of whom were black themselves. At a time when America was segregated, when the movie theater in nearby Baldwin kept the races sitting in separate sections, Idlewild was known as “Black Eden” for its robust entertainment scene.
“They were shows like you might see in Las Vegas,” Clark said.
Several nightclubs and dance halls dotted the woods, with big-city names like the Flamingo Club and El Morocco. Clark ticks off the acts:
“Aretha Franklin, Peg Leg Bates, Jackie Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, the Four Tops, Della Reese, the Temptations, Arthur Prysock – there were so many,” she said.
These days, such acts are found in Detroit and even Grand Rapids, and live music at Idlewild is confined to an annual music festival. While economic shifts have transformed the vacation economy of Northern Michigan, the changes at Idlewild started decades ago with the end of legal segregation.
“Idlewild was where black folk with disposable income went to party,” said Ben Wilson, emeritus professor of Africana studies at Western Michigan University. “It was a destination for rich people who didn’t want to sweat to death in the summer.”
They included Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a pioneering Chicago heart surgeon; Joe Louis, boxing champion; W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP; and Madam C.J. Walker, who developed a line of hair-care products for black women.
But they also included people like Clark’s aunt and uncle, who raised her – educators she would eventually follow into the profession, leaving summers free for long spells in the Michigan woods.
“We would ride horses, fish and swim,” she said. “Every day we went to (Williams Island), where there was a bathhouse and beach. That’s where you made your plans for the evening. Everyone was there.”
Idlewild’s place on the summer entertainment circuit came about because even stages were still largely segregated then. Top black performers could play for white audiences here and there, but it was still worth their while to make the trip up from Chicago or another large city. Idlewild, Wilson said, was part of the so-called “chitlin circuit” that served black audiences.
And, of course, Idlewild was beautiful, and relaxing. Most of the performers stayed in the few small hotels there, Clark said, recalling her sister “playing ball with the Four Tops” outside a long-gone lodging.
Idlewild wasn’t the only African-American resort in the area, Wilson said. Developers also sold lots to blacks when they built Woodland Park, nearby in Newaygo County.
“The difference was, Woodland Park was for relaxation. Idlewild was the party place,” he said. At its peak, thousands would come on summer weekends, so many that one lodging option was known as a “doghouse,” a tiny structure just big enough for a cot, rented to those who only wanted a place to lay their heads.
The civil rights movement changed everything. While cottage owners like Clark stayed, the performers found they could command bigger paychecks playing for white audiences elsewhere. The dance halls and clubs closed, and the woods that once rang with music fell mostly silent. A single bar and small hotel remain.
Both Woodland Park and Idlewild still exist, but only Idlewild is still all, or nearly all, African American. It is a beautiful spot, dotted here and there with neglected cottages, but still with enough renovation construction to give a visitor hope for the future. The village celebrated its centennial last year, and brand-new historical markers dot the area.
Clark points out the residents who still come up for at least part of the summer – old friends, but also a few young people – drawn by the cool shade and sparkling lakes that drew Idlewild’s first resorters.
“It’s a shadow of what it used to be, but it’s worth maintaining,” said Wilson. “This is a vital, vital part of the Michigan cultural heritage.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has lived in Metro Detroit since 2005, working as a writer, editor and teacher. She worked for 20 years as a columnist in Fort Wayne, Ind. and was a co-founder of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism.