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Idlewild, the "Black Eden," celebrates 100 years

They called it the “Black Eden.”

From the 1920’s to 60’s, tens of thousands of African Americans poured into the resort town of Idlewild, Michigan. They came to escape steaming summers in segregated cities, and to see some of the greatest musicians of the age.

As Idlewild’s centennial summer comes to a close, 90-year-old resident John Meeks is feeling nostalgic. “My first time coming to Idlewild was in 1954. And we got out of the car, and there were people there wall to wall, just a river of people. And I saw some of the prettiest women, sunbathing, I’ve ever seen in my life. I joined the crowd looking at the beauty.”

Meeks has built a park for the town’s centennial, sweating out 12-hour days this summer to get it ready in time. With a round, open face and white stubble, he has the energy of a much younger man as he talks about the two great loves in his life: good-looking women and Idlewild.

In its heyday, all the great acts came through here: Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong…Meeks recalls them all. “Della Reese, the Four Tops, Dinah Washington, George Kirby, Jackie Wilson, too.”

But the loveliest, he says, was a showgirl at Idlewild’s famous Paradise Club. “One of the most beautiful girls in Idlewild,” Meeks recalls.

Her name is Carlean Gill. Now living in Florida, she grew up in Detroit before coming to Idlewild.  In the middle of segregated America, Gill says, African Americans could turn off the highway at the Idlewild traffic light and suddenly feel free.  “You see that  blinking light, and it just look like, you just relieve all of that pressure that was on you in the cities. And you could relax. And you know you were there with just beautiful people, and you know that it was just a relaxed place to be.”

At its peak, the town drew some 25,000 summer visitors from urban centers across the Midwest - Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago.  But with integration, other resorts opened up to African Americans, and Idlewild began to die. These days, driving into Idlewild is unsettling.  It’s deeply rural: endless acres of forest and dirt roads dotted with shacks and empty lots.

In the center of town, only the post office and the Red Rooster bar and grill are still open. The crowd is small but the food is good. On tonight’s menu: potato salad, and sweet potato pie.

Hubert Brandon orders all three. A tall, lanky guy from Ohio, Brandon has come here with a mission: to save Idlewild. “African Americans have no town that we can call our own,” he says. “The Italian-American population, the German-American population, other populations have whole communities for tourism, where they bring people in where they show the homes, they show the tourist attractions. Why not Idlewild?”

With its deep woods and peaceful lake, Idlewild still feels beautiful around the waterfront.  With cheap land and a rich history, it's easy to understand the hopes for Idlewild's resurgence.  But people like Brandon have been dreaming about just such a resurgence for decades, with not much to show for it.

On a recent Saturday morning, a visitor pulls into Idlewild for a family event, and seems taken aback by just how rural – and largely abandoned – Idlewild has become. Brandon steps in, asking the man to give them a little more time. “There’ll be a Madam CJ Walker museum, there’s gonna be a restaurant that you can come to, some more boat launches, attractions for your kids…” 

“Alright, well I’m not gonna write you off just yet,” the man tells Brandon. “Thank you, thank you. That’s what we need,” Brandon replies.

Still, some in Idlewild say they need basic infrastructure more than they need museums. Ron Griffin just won the primary election for town supervisor. Sitting outside the Red Rooster one warm summer night, he says it’s a 10 mile journey from Idlewild just to buy milk. “We need business up here. I mean, you need to move on to reality. The past is great, we understand that, but you can’t go back. You can’t go back into time.”

And it’s time that’s left Idlewild behind. John Meeks, the 90-year-old ladies man,  knows desegregation brought an end to the old Idlewild.  “People had the freedom to go where they want. They sort of abandoned Idlewild in a way.”

Still, he’s hopeful black families will one day rediscover this place. “It’s like a child under control of the family. He’s grown, and now he can do what he want to do. But there’s one thing about it: he always return to his roots. He always return and reconnect to the family.”

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.