Around the Nation
1:07 am
Thu July 5, 2012

'Black Eden,' The Town That Segregation Built

Originally published on Thu July 5, 2012 8:25 pm

Sometimes history is made in the most unlikely of places.

This summer, the community of Idlewild, Mich., once known as America's "Black Eden," is celebrating its centennial — and its place in American history.

Located about 30 miles east of the larger resort city of Ludington, tucked away in the woods of the Huron-Manistee National Forests, the town was once a go-to spot for summer vacations. It was a resort unlike any other in the United States, however, and was, in essence, the town that segregation built.

In the 1950s and '60s, Idlewild was just what working-class blacks were looking for: a resort that was reasonable driving distance from places like Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit — yet invisible enough so black Americans could retreat from the ugliness of discrimination and Jim Crow.

"This is 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," says Maxine Martin, a longtime Idlewilder.

Martin's great-grandchildren are sixth-generation here, and she remembers coming to Idlewild in the town's heyday. That's when as many as 25,000 people swamped the town in the summer.

The little resort attracted big names like B.B. King, Della Reese, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin. It was, for all intents and purposes, a boomtown.

"There were night clubs, after-hours joints, hotels, motels, beauty shops, barber shops [and] restaurants," Martin says. "That was when people brought their good clothes to Idlewild because ... there was a lot of night life."

Times change, of course, and now instead of hearing Aretha live, a DJ plays the "Cupid Shuffle" at Idlewild's centennial kickoff.

White speculators created Idlewild out of thousands of acres of prime forestland purchased before the national forest was established. Their plan was to market it far and wide to black Americans looking for a resort. It worked so well that Idlewild became a resort unmatched in American history.

In the end, it was integration that killed Idlewild. Blacks no longer had to remain invisible, and today, the community has a meager population of only 700. But the town still has a story to tell.

"My opinion is that Idlewild, Mich., is a major American historic resource," says Everett Fly, an architect and historic preservationist who lives in San Antonio.

Fly says Idlewild was the largest historic resort for black Americans in the continental U.S., nearly 3,000 acres. It was 10 times the size of its contemporaries and home to playwrights, musicians and intellectuals.

"I think there's a place for Idlewild as ... a place where ideas do come together," he says.

Now residents of Idlewild are looking for new ways to market their town's history and once again become a vacation destination.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A moment of America's racial history happened in an unlikely place: a little town called Idlewild, also called America's Black Eden. While activists fought for civil rights in cities like Montgomery and Little Rock, the resort in west-central Michigan was one of the few where African-Americans could vacation and purchase property, and it was hugely popular. This summer, Idlewild is celebrating its centennial and its place in American history. From member station WCMU, Amy Robinson reports.

AMY ROBINSON, BYLINE: Idlewild, Michigan is about 30 miles east of the larger resort city of Ludington, tucked away in the woods of the Huron Manistee National Forest. People like Nedy Windham remember this town as the go-to spot in the '50s and '60s for summer vacations.

NEDY WINDHAM: And everybody said: You're going up North? Yep, we're going up North. We're going to Idlewild.

ROBINSON: What Windham didn't know when she came here as a child was that this resort was unlike any other in the United States. It was, in essence, the town that segregation built. Idlewild is invisible to most Americans - in fact, to most Michiganders. But in the '50s and '60s, it's just what working-class African-Americans were looking for: a reasonable driving distance from places like Chicago, St Louis, of course Detroit, and yet, well, invisible. So African-Americans could retreat from the ugliness of discrimination and Jim Crow.

MAXINE MARTIN: This is 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.

ROBINSON: Maxine Martin is a long time Idlewilder. Her great grandchildren are sixth generation here. We met up at the opening ceremonies for Idlewild's centennial. Martin remembers coming here in the town's heyday. That's when as many as 25,000 people swamped the town in the summer. The little resort attracted big names: BB King, Della Reese, Louis Armstrong and Aretha.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) All I'm asking for is a little respect when you come home. Just a little bit. Hey, baby. Just a little bit.

ROBINSON: It was, for all intents and purposes, a boom town.

MARTIN: There were night clubs, after-hours joints, hotels, motels, beauty shops, barber shops, restaurants all over the place.

ROBINSON: Times change. Now, instead of hearing Aretha live, a DJ plays "The Cupid Shuffle" at Idlewild's centennial kick off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUPID SHUFFLE")

CUPID: (Singing) They got a brand-new dance. You gotta move your muscle. A brand new dance...

ROBINSON: White speculators created Idlewild out of thousands of acres of prime forestland purchased before the National Forest was established. Their plan was to market it far and wide to African-Americans looking for a resort. It worked so well, Idlewild became a resort unmatched in American history.

In the end, it was integration that killed Idlewild. African-Americans no longer had to remain invisible. Today, the community has a meager population of only 700 and a story to tell.

EVERETT FLY: My opinion is that Idlewild, Michigan is a major American historic resource.

ROBINSON: Everett Fly is an architect and historic preservationist who lives in San Antonio. He says Idlewild was the largest historic African-American resort in the continental U.S., nearly 3,000 acres, 10 times the size of its contemporaries. It was home to playwrights, musicians and intellectuals.

FLY: I think there's a place for Idlewild as, if you will, a kind of a crucible, a place where ideas do come together.

ROBINSON: Now residents of Idlewild are looking for new ways to market their town's history and once again become a vacation destination.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Robinson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.