A CONTEXT FOR UNDERSTANDING IDLEWILDS PAST
The community of Idlewild continues to be recognized as one of the oldest, most famous, and most memorable African American resort communities in contemporary United States history. Idlewild was founded over eighty nine years ago in 1912. Recognized as an intellectual center for African Americans, Idlewild was and continues to be an oasis for black economic success and community development. 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. Like many urbanites, they wanted the opportunity for recreational pursuits in a setting removed far from racism and discrimination in the cities. Because Northwest Michigan represented a likely location to establish a resort for African Americans, four white land developers and their wives organized the Idlewild Resort Company (IRC). 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 IRC during the pre-World War I era. To secure land rights, E.G. Branch built a cabin, homesteaded the island for three years, and eventually obtained the title to the island, which became the central focus of the resort community.
The island was connected to the mainland by footbridges. No one knows who designated the name of the community; however, one folk saying suggests it refers to Idle men and wild women. Whatever the circumstances, IRC organized its first excursion to attract middle class African American professionals from Detroit, Chicago, Indiana, and other Midwestern cities to tour the rustic community. During their visit lots were sold. One prominent personality to relocate to Idlewild 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 to be later called in Idlewild, Herman O. and Lela G. Wilson of Chicago, three of Dr. Dans associates from Chicago and Cleveland, and twenty others were among the first group of African American professionals to join IRCs excursion. Later, tours were conducted from Chicago, Indiana, Detroit, Grand Rapids, St. Louis, and other cities by train. A 1919 pamphlet used to promote the community, which was produced and distributed by IRC, entitled "Beautiful Idlewild," describes Idlewild as "the hunters paradise," as a place renowned "for its beautiful lakes of pure spring water" and "its myriads of game fish."
IRC had acquired over 2,700 acres of land. The company sold a good deal of that land, and then turned the island over to Dr. Dan and Louis B. Anderson of Chicago, and Robert Riffe and William Green of Cleveland, who collaboratively formed the Idlewild Improvement Association (IIA) and helped build the clubhouse. IIA sold property to such notables as NAACP co-founder, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, cosmetic entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker, Lemuel L. Foster, president of Fisk University, and the famous African-American novelist Charles Waddell Chesnutt. IIA was also responsible for recruiting other middle-class professionals such as William Pickens, field secretary of the NAACP, the Reverend H. Franklin Bray, a missionary and early settler in the community, along with his wife, Virginia Bray, who together founded the first formal church in Idlewild, and the Reverend Robert L. Bradby, Sr. of Second Baptist Church of Detroit, who was instructional in significantly contributing to the development of the Idlewild Lot Owners Association. IIA encouraged this new influx of community leaders to foster racial pride, economic development, decency, and respect to Idlewild. One activity that garnered much respect from outsiders, including Michigan Republican Governor Fred Greene, was the annual Idlewild Chautauqua organized by Reverend Bradby. These Chautauqua events, which lasted for one week, added a unique intellectual favor to the recreational life in the community. People came from everywhere to participate in the event.
Idlewild, by then known throughout the United States as the Black Eden of Michigan, 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 North America. As this new black intelligentsia began to settle in the community, some relocated as activists and members of Marcus Mosiah Garveys Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), some as followers of Du Bois National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), others as believers of the late Booker T. Washingtons political machine, and others as potential investors. However, for the majority of these professionals who brought their families, the idea of land ownership conveyed black social status and membership in this community.
Idlewild quickly became the intellectual center for economic development and community progress in Black America during the Pre World War II era. The ILOA, for example, had become a national organization with members from over thirty-four states in the country. In addition, the Purple Palace, Paradise Clubhouse and the Idlewild Clubhouse, Rosanna Tavern, and Pearls Bar provided summer entertainment for tourists and employment opportunities for seasonal and year round residents in the community. The Idlewild Fire Department was established, and a host of new entrepreneurs began entering the community. Paradise Palace became McKnights Convalescent Home.
Idlewild during the Post World War II era attracted what some sociologists have labeled the new African American "working" middle class. With the construction of a few paved roads in Idlewild, a reinvestment in the townships only post office on the island, and greater availability of electricity, a new generation of Black entrepreneurs began to invest in Idlewild. Phil Giles, Arthur "Big Daddy" Braggs, and a host of other African American businessmen and women took advantage of the market by purchasing property on Williams Island and Paradise Gardens, and began developing these areas into an elaborate nightspot and business center. The face of both nightspots, The Flamingo and Paradise Clubs, featured well-known entertainers, who when they performed elsewhere were forced to submit to segregation. Della Reese, Al Hibbler, Bill Doggett, Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, George Kirby, The Four Tops, Roy Hamilton, Brook Benton, Choker Campbell, Lottie "the Body" Graves, the Rhythm Kings, the Harlem Brothers, and many other performers, entertained thousands of Idlewilders and white citizens in neighboring Lake County townships throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The names Phil Giles and Arthur Braggs became synonymous with Idlewild. Braggs produced singers, dancers, showgirls, and entertainers, which helped Idlewild to become the Summer Apollo of Michigan. Phil Giles, on the other day, was a respected businessman in the community, and eventually became mayor of Idlewild.
With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the many rebellions that followed in 1968, the Vietnam War and national recession in the early 1970s, not to mention the availability of the credit card and the inability of seasonal business owners in Idlewild to be competitive with other vacation outlets in the United States, the community suffered a significant social and economic loss. The children of many of the old families who were born in the community were now forced to relocate to other cities in Michigan and elsewhere to find suitable employment to care for their families.
As the community underwent a significant population decline, Idlewild became a lesser-known family vacation and retirement community. The community began to take on a new identity. An increasing number of new retirees, many who visited the area during its prime, relocated to the community and launched an intensive revitalization effort. Blight, trash, and junk cars were concerns that demanded the immediate attention of citizens in the township. With these changes and other community concerns, Township officials organized a planning commission, zoning board, and other in-group initiatives as a way to encourage community input and to offer specific practical solutions to improve the community. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) was obtained for demolition, additional roadwork, and other structural changes, which resulted in a complete, make over of the island. By 1977, under the leadership of Harry Solomon, Yates Township Supervisor at the time, the community formally renamed "The Island" to "Williams Island" as a tribute in honor of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.
While the Yates Township population began to slowly increase, it continued to do so through a disproportionate number of retirees. However, the projected growth in business and employment opportunities that would serve the needs of these new residents was not occurring. A heavy burden was placed on seasonal residents to pay for community facilities and services for year around homeowners with limited incomes. By the early 1990s, federal and state funding was becoming scarce. The communitys attention was turned away from building projects and turned toward the renovation of existing township properties. Continued clean up of the community and community pride among all citizens were high priorities for the township government. Although these pragmatic developments were taking place, the community continued to suffer from a poor economy. Then under the leadership of the Clinton-Gore Administration came a pilot rural policy initiative, which followed a pilot urban policy development that fostered collaborative partnerships between business, government, grassroots organizations, and organized community agencies. Community participation in Idlewild and Lake County, Michigan resulted in a vision for social change. This vision was partially fulfilled when the federal government designated Lake County, Michigan, as an Enterprising Community, a designation, which encouraged two important major economic development projects, a sewer system and natural gas. Today, Idlewild, like most of Lake County, is well on its way to revitalizing community life for its residents. Some residents view it as an eden community, some embrace this designation and want it to be a retirement and family community, while others seek to revitalize it and make it a new black resort community in post-modern North American history. By either account, Idlewild is on the comeback.
OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK
The thematic focus of my book, Idlewild: Black Eden of Michigan (Arcadia Publishers, 2001), explores the communitys history as an intellectual and recreational haven for African American families. Chapter one highlights the founding years of the communitys development and the contributions of the IRC, not to mention the role of the founding families and early black settlers. Chapter two traces the achievements of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and his Idlewild Improvement Association on Williams Island. Chapter three summarizes the contributions of the ILOA to the communitys development, documenting its origins, its purpose, its leaders, and their achievements. Chapter four highlights the role of various religious institutions that have been instrumental to the communitys development, including the first church, The Peoples Community Tabernacle Church. Chapter five details the legacy of the Wilsons and Paradise Path, including the building of the famous Paradise Club, Paradise Hotel, Wilsons Grocery, Township Governance, and the Garden Club.
Chapter six explores the history of radicalism in Idlewild, beginning with the Great Depression era, President Roosevelts Civilian Conservation Corp, and the history of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in the community. Chapter seven focuses on the heyday entertainment era in Idlewild, including the popularity of Phil Giles famous Flamingo Club and Arthur Braggs Idlewild Revue at the Paradise Club. The fabulous costumes wore by the Fiesta Dolls and the showgirls, and the shows performed by Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, the Four Tops, Bill Doggett, and the Braggetts are illustrated. Chapter eight outlines the establishment of and continued presence of the National Idlewilders Club, Inc., particularly the musical and narrative traditions it celebrates annually. Chapter nine focuses on year round community life in Idlewild. Chapter ten traces rebirth in the community, including the contributions of FiveCAP, Inc. Michigan State University Extension, the Lake County Enterprise Zone Board, and other organizations, such as the Idlewild Historical Museum and Cultural Center. The book will be available for interested readers this summer in July. Look for it in your local bookstore.
Although Idlewilds tourism has significantly declined from what it use to be, African Americans throughout the United States still maintain strong ties to the community through frequent visits and their involvement in the National Idlewilders Club annual celebrations. The National Idlewilders consists of local chapters in six cities. In addition, the National Lot Owners Association with local chapters in eight cities contributes to the communitys significance. Finally, the memories and activism of year-round, seasonal, and former Idlewild residents and visitors who now live throughout the United States and abroad are evidence of the continuing significance of the community.