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Travel: Idlewild ‘Black Eden’

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

The racism of the early twentieth century kept America’s black middle class away from most of the resorts, restaurants, and clubs enjoyed by their white counterparts.

But in the forest of northwest Michigan was a place apart, a “Black Eden” known as Idlewild. Here, black writers, thinkers, physicians, and entrepreneurs found a safe haven where they could escape the toxic weight of racism and segregation and simply relax.

It rose to prominence as a meeting place for black intellectuals and reached national fame as a place to see and rub shoulders with some of the most famous black entertainers of all time. But the Idlewild Resort was first conceived by white business people who saw an opportunity.

In 1912, four white couples, two from Chicago and two from Michigan, formed an alliance called the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC). One of them, a Michigan man named Erastus G. Branch, homesteaded a plot of land along a peaceful mile-wide lake (then called Crooked Lake) then surrounded by undeveloped forest. In 1915, the IRC began purchasing and platting additional land, eventually acquiring more than 2,700 acres. They posted ads in regional black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender touting Idlewild as a “hunter's paradise" renowned “for its beautiful lakes of pure spring water” and “its myriads of game fish.” They hired African American salesmen and women to promote the resort, and in 1915 organized trips from Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland so that prospective buyers could see it for themselves.

It worked. The promise of what Idlewild could be attracted some of the most well-regarded African Americans of the time. One of the first to purchase property there was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, one of the founders of Chicago’s Provident Hospital and the first surgeon in the U.S. to successfully perform open-heart surgery. Williams was soon followed by Madame C. J. Walker, whose beauty supply company made her the first woman and the first African American to become a self-made millionaire. In 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois, famed civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also visited Idlewild and bought his own piece of land. In a few short years, Idlewild became a safe and celebratory place where America’s black intelligentsia could gather in the summer on their own property and on their own terms to debate, network, and breathe fresh air.

For many, Idlewild became a cause, a sentiment reflected in a letter that Madame C. J. Walker wrote to the IRC in 1918: “I consider Idlewild a great national progressive movement…it supplies a great pressing necessity to our people, namely, a national meeting place where the leading spirits from the various sections of the country may gather each year and discuss problems of national and race importance. Great good cannot but result from such a movement, and Idlewild being located as it is in the heart of the Great Resort Sections of Michigan; makes it ideal for the combination of business and pleasure.”

Idlewild also became a welcomed stop for many legendary black performers. The Four Tops, Jackie Wilson, Della Reese, B. B. King, Cab Calloway, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and in later years, the queen herself, Aretha Franklin, all performed there, some of them repeatedly. Many also arranged extended stays so that they could enjoy the place or vacation there with their families.

But soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, interest in Idlewild waned. With the new world of opportunities suddenly open to them, black vacationers began exploring locales they had previously only dreamed of visiting.

Today, Idlewild is home to a dwindling population of fewer than 1,000, most of them retirees with fond memories of summers spent there in their youth. The heyday of what it represented for middle-class and upper-class African Americans, and the entertainment era, that all has passed. But what remains is an undying interest in keeping it going.

Are We There Yet - Travel Group is actively motivating black people to travel. Using it's affiliation with Cruises & Tours Unlimited, one of the nation’s largest travel companies, to provide people of color the best cruise or vacations you could possibly think of at a fantastic price. If you are black and are ready to travel, contact David Shields at Are We There Yet - Travel Group and start planning TODAY!

Credit: Geoffrey Baer, "Idlewild: Michigan’s ‘Black Eden’"

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