How segregation created a ‘black Eden’

Standing amid woodland in north-west Michigan, John Meeks apologises for his grimy clothes. “I’ve been moving tree stumps with my tractor,” the 90-year-old says, as he dusts off his tan trousers and white T-shirt that reads “Idlewild, Michigan: The Black Eden”. The spritely Meeks – who started summering in Idlewild in 1954 and later retired there – has for the past few months been building a small park to mark the centenary of what was once America’s largest black resort.

Giving a tour of Idlewild, a three-hour drive north-west of Detroit, Meeks points out spots of interest, including the home of Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open-heart surgery in the US, and the site – vacant since it burned down more than two decades ago – of the Paradise Club, which once hosted the likes of the Four Tops, Della Reese, and the Temptations.

Stopping in front of a boarded-up building, Meeks chuckles. “This was the Casa Blanca Hotel, where all the dignitaries would stay,” he says. “One night the exotic dancer Lottie ‘The Body’ Tatum-Graves, who was just 16 at the time, jumped out of a second-floor window during an after-hours party because she could not dare be caught under-age.”

As people such as Meeks, a local motel proprietor, will attest, Idlewild during its heyday was a stimulating place. Yet it owed its existence to segregation. Until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, blacks in the US were not allowed in most of the holiday spots frequented by whites, so parallel vacation communities were established. Idlewild was the most popular and, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, drew upwards of 25,000 holidaymakers over a summer from cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago.

“If you were from a place like Detroit, having to know where you could and could not go, there was all this tension,” says Carlean Gill, who was a dancer with the Fiesta Dolls troupe at the Paradise. “But once you got to that blinking street light and turned up into Idlewild, it was like, ‘I am free’”.

Once racial segregation was banned in 1964 and American blacks could vacation wherever they wanted, Idlewild’s economy and population declined during the 1970s. But there is hope among many in the community that marking the resort’s centenary this summer will spark renewed interest. Events include concerts, balls, an arts festival, a golf tournament and, next weekend, a reunion of staff, performers and holidaymakers, complete with dance and musical acts. “The message we are trying to send out is that Idlewild is not dead, it has just been dormant,” says Hubert Brandon, a consultant with the Idlewild Community Development Corporation.

Idlewild was founded in 1912 by four white couples, who, noting new opportunities opening up for black Americans, purchased 2,700 acres of woodland and lakes. They built cottages and a clubhouse and were soon attracting lawyers, doctors and business owners from across the Midwest. Early investors included WEB Dubois, a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Madam CJ Walker, a cosmetics entrepreneur reputed to have been the first black American millionaire; and novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt.

The resort quickly became connected to the New Negro Movement. “It was the black elite, [with] the new attitude they had, and Idlewild became a site of cultural and intellectual development,” says Ronald J Stephens, an author and professor of African-American studies at Ohio University. “It was a place to escape racism but there was also an interracial class angle, to be far enough away from the working class.”

After the second world war, the class landscape changed. A black middle class was developing, thanks to a thriving economy, with the car industry in particular surging ahead, and urban renewal. Another growth industry was music, as black musicians, many signed to Detroit’s Motown label, enjoyed mainstream success. “During the 1950s and 1960s it becomes a different place,” says Stephens. “Idlewild enters the era of entertainment.”

Sarah Vaughan, BB King, Jackie Wilson, Lon Fontaine, Dinah Washington, the Spinners, T-Bone Walker and countless others performed at clubs in those two decades.

The Paradise’s music promoter was Arthur Braggs, who died in 1992. He would scout artists across the US and bring them to Idlewild in the summers. In the off-season he would take the Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue on tour across the US, Canada and Mexico. “My dad put on a production that allowed some of these acts to get signed with Motown,” says his daughter, Nichole Braggs, who is organising next weekend’s reunion. “I think Idlewild definitely helped step up artists’ professionalism and understanding of what it took to be successful as an entertainer.”

The actress and singer Della Reese, who performed at Idlewild every summer from 1953 to 1960, has fond memories of her time there. “It provided a way for me – for people of colour – to experience things we were not necessarily comfortable experiencing somewhere else,” she says. “In Vegas, I could sing in places, but I could not eat there or sleep there or sit in the lobby. Idlewild was altogether different.”

Thanks to the efforts of Meeks and others, Idlewild shows signs of renewed life. A few hotels have reopened and there is now a restaurant and a grocery store; derelict properties have been refurbished and new ones built. Talks are taking place between locals and state officials to create everything from a heritage hiking trail to history and entertainment museums. “I want to spend the rest of my time promoting Idlewild,” says Meeks. “I want to get Idlewild moving again.”

The Idlewild Paradise Club reunion and tribute to Arthur Braggs will take place August 24 to 26

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