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The Historical Context for Understanding Idlewild's Past

Idlewild was the home of a popular resort area for African Americans during the early twentieth century. Located in Michigan, Professor Stephens writes that the resort was frequented by, middle class African American professionals from Detroit, Chicago and other Midwestern cities." Among its earliest guests was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. "Dr. Dan, as he was later called in Idlewild, and some of his associates from Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere, were among that first group of African American professionals to join the Idlewild Resort Company.”

I have identified six significant time periods of progresses and failures in Idlewild to illustrate why it continues to be recognized as one of the oldest and most famous African American resort communities in the Unites States. Stage one, which focuses on the founding years of Idlewild between 1912 and 1919, concentrates on early developments in the community. Stage two, 1920 to 1935, represents the creation of a separate space for middle class African American professionals in Idlewild as its population grew. Stage three, which occupies the years 1936 to 1950, highlights a period of economic boom in the community. Stage four, 1950 to 1960, marks the heyday in which Idlewild reaches its high watermark of prosperity. Stage five, between the years of 1960 to 1980, represents the age of decline and readjustment in Idlewild. Stage six, from 1980 to the present, unfolds as the era of pragmatism and rebirth in the community.

The Founding of a Community

During the second decade of the Twentieth Century, a small yet clearly distinguishable African American middle class largely composed of professionals and small businessmen and women, had been established in several urban centers (Hine, Hine and Harrold, 2000). Like many urbanites, they wanted the opportunity for recreational pursuits in a setting removed from the city. These same black professionals, through their own volitions, carried with them a spirit and praxis of radicalism and resistance that subtlety spoke in opposition to the dominant discourse on racial politics and legal practices of segregation, which continued to bar them from rest and relaxation in the existing white controlled cities, states and resort communities.

Because Northwest Michigan represented a likely location to establish a resort for African Americans, white land developers, Erastus Branch and his wife, Flora, and Adelbert Branch and his wife, Isabelle, from White Cloud, Michigan, and Wilbur M. Lemon and his wife, Mayme, and A.E. Wright and his wife, Modolin, of Chicago, organized the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC). During the pre-World War I era, this represented a bold undertaking. E.G. Branch built a cabin, homesteaded the island for three years, and thus obtained the title to the island, which became the central focus of the Idlewild resort. By the fall of 1915, IRC surveyed its first plat in Idlewild, and immediately began marketing lots in the company’s original platted tracts adjacent to Idlewild Lake (Bantom, 1929, 2).

The island was connected to the mainland by footbridges, and IRC purchased other properties, made surveys, had maps drawn, and plats recorded. Late in the fall of 1915, a critical moment in U.S. history, IRC sponsored an excursion, attracting middle class African American professionals from Detroit, Chicago and other Midwestern cities to visit after which lots were offered for sale. The war in Europe, one of the bloodiest for that time was still in effect. The very people IRC wanted to attract to the community had taken a very active part in this war, fighting valiantly under the banner of the U.S. flag. Although these early developments were important, the mass migration of the Black middle class in Idlewild did not accelerate until after World War I. An aggressive promotional campaign in the 1920’s, using several highly respected members of the African American community, marked the creation of a separate space for Idlewild’s growing middle class population.

The Creation of Separate Space

The evolution of the African American middle class and its stratification not only followed the violence that erupted in Chicago during the hot July days of 1919, but also played an integral part in the development and vitality of Black Idlewild, Michigan. Together these disruptions were not only part of the worldwide crisis following the end of World War I, but the making of a Black intelligentsia in the Idlewild community (Taft 1919). One prominent personality to relocate during this first transitional period in Idlewild’s history was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams who, in 1893 became the first surgeon in the United States to perform open-heart surgery. Dr. Dan, as he was later called in Idlewild, and some of his associates from Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere, were among that first group of African American professionals to join the Idlewild Resort Company’s excursion during that period.

By the mid-1920s, the IRC had sold and turned the land over to Dr. Dan of Chicago, and Robert Riffle and William Green of Cleveland, who collaboratively formed the Idlewild Improvement Association (IIA). The founders believed that Idlewild represented an important site to create what Alain Locke (1925) defined as the age of “The New Negro.” This period in American history not only popularized African-American expressions that paralleled the Jazz Age, but also the spirit and mindset of the new Negro. The Idlewild Improvement Association not only purchased land but built a subdivision and sold property to such notables as NAACP co-founder, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, cosmetic giant Madame C. J. Walker, and the famous African-American novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt. The Association was also responsible for recruiting other middle-class professionals, services, and businesses to the community. These community leaders were directly responsible for bringing nightclubs, barber shops, medical services, grocery stores, filling stations, temporary housing, automobile repairs, and police and fire protection to Idlewild.

Idlewild, by then known throughout Black America, had become one of the few places middle class African Americans could find peace of mind, and could escape systematic practices of racism and discrimination in the United States. A massive infusion of African American professionals and their families from such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis migrated to Idlewild, Michigan, leaving behind the aftermath of the Chicago Red Summer in July of 1919. As this new mass culture settled in the community of Idlewild, some relocated as activists and members of Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), while others as followers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Booker T. Washington’s political machine, or as potential investors (Wilson, 1982).

For the majority of these professionals who brought their families, however, the idea of home ownership conveyed black social status and membership in this community. Many of these early settlers basically found organized activities such as swimming, boating, the nightlife, and a memorable religious worship service as a form of salvation. In addition to these attractions, a number of other developments took place on the island immediately after the First World War. Though America seemed trapped within white racial reasoning as illustrated through lynchings, disfranchisement, and caste privileges, Idlewild continued to grow as a Black community. Idlewild organizers and investors first built an Idlewild Club House, and second, an emergency hospital. Later Dr. Dan’s Oakmere Hotel and the Purple Palace nightclub were built. Soon to follow came the incorporation of the Idlewild Lot Owners Association (ILOA) in August 1921, another important development that was initiated by the founders, and controlled township governance.1 Herman O. and Lela G. Wilson, the only couple from the first excursion, also built the Paradise Clubhouse in 1922, followed by the Paradise Hotel, and twenty-five little 10 x 12 guest sleeping cottages, known then as “Dog Houses” (Wilson, 1982). 2 The Wilson’s eventually opened a grocery store in the garage of their home, and later built a storefront during the post-World War II era. These contributions helped to encourage cultural pride, family pride, community pride, and Christian pride among African-American residents, even though their viewpoints are not homogeneous. Although Herman Wilson had no interests in radical politics and organizing, his wife, Lela remained a loyal Garveyite until her death in 1963.

1Idlewild was founded in 1915 by IRC, which also founded the Idlewild Lot Owners Association in the State of Illinois in 1921. The organization was incorporated in the State of Michigan in 1932, and will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2001. The mission and goals of ILOA are to maintain an association of all persons interested in the welfare and improvement of the community of Idlewild by promoting positive environmental, social and humanitarian issues of concern to property owners. ILOA is a non-profit, charitable, service, recreational, civic and welfare organization. It is a national organization consisting of property owners in such cities as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Since its founding in 1921, ILOA has sponsored various summer programs for youth, and adult activities (an annual fashion flair and amateur show, among other activities) to encourage cultural heritage and pride within the community. From the late 1930s to the present, ILOA has played a significant role in the leadership in the community. Some of its past presidents have included Sulee Stinson of Detroit, Irene McCoy Gaines of Chicago, Margot Harding of Chicago, and the Reverend Robert Louis Bradby of Detroit. The ILOA annual fashion flair, which is accompanied by a program booklet, takes place each year during Idlewilder's Week. Another musical event sponsored by ILOA include an amateur show. Volunteers representing various members of ILOA and the National Idlewilder's help to preserve this tradition of showcasing local and regional talents.

2Recalling a history of the lodging situation in Idlewild in the 1920s, Mary Ellen Anderson has this to say about the doghouses on August 1, 1976. During the mid-1920s in search of relief for his wife's hay fever, Dr. Ernest T. Cox from Columbus, Ohio, decided to investigate the climate in Idlewild, Michigan. This was to be the beginning of a yearly trek for this family's four generations of summer residents to the popular resort. Anxious to reap the benefits of Michigan's atmosphere, Mary Ellen Cox and a friend packed up their respective toddlers and headed for Idlewild by train---a 16 hour trip at that time with layovers in Chicago and Grand Rapids. The two mothers found accommodations on the "Island" in two of the many identical-one room "doghouses" so called because they resembled large dog houses. These little cottages, about thirty in number were lined up in a curve along the north side of the Island. There was a long narrow boardwalk in front of the houses extending from the first to the last. The cottages had a front door opening onto the boardwalk, a window at the opposite end facing little Lake Idlewild. Each cottage contained two cots, a mash stand complete with pitcher and bowl, a bucket for carrying water from the public hand pump located behind the center of the boardwalk in a public park like area, a kerosene heater to take the chill off on cool days. A small stereo appliance was used for making a cup of tea, etc. Occupants were served hot tasty meals in the dining room of the Idlewild Clubhouse on the south side of the island overlooking the beautiful Idlewild Lake. Toilet facilities were primitive (out-houses, as they were called), located far behind the dog houses near the first and last building, one for ladies, one for men.

by Professor Ronald J. Stephens, University of Nebraska

To read more order Idlewild:The Black Eden of Michigan

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