WMU News

WMU professors chronicle rise and decline of "Black Eden"

June 12, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Forget the Hamptons. From 1912 until the mid-1960s, if you were African American, Michigan's Idlewild was the summer hot spot for you. And with good planning and action, say two WMU professors, it can be again.

The rise and decline of Idlewild, once a thriving resort community in Michigan's Lake County, is detailed in "Black Eden," a new book, written by Western Michigan University professors Drs. Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson and published by Michigan State University Press.

Idlewild was created in 1912 by white entrepreneurs as a resort specifically for blacks who, at the time, were barred from public places, including hotels and restaurants. It quickly became the most popular black resort in the Midwest, attracting tens of thousands of visitors at the height of a season. Among the resort's vacationers were such black luminaries as Charles Chestnutt, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Joe Louis and W.E.B. Du Bois. Fueling Idlewild's popularity was its thriving entertainment venues, which boasted the best black performers of the day, from Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby.

Idlewild enjoyed nearly half a century of prosperity before integration and the death of pivotal civic leaders brought about the community's decline. With a year-round population of approximately 500 and no gas stations or grocery stores, Idlewild is now a rural community fighting for continued existence in the face of social and economic woes. Unemployment, welfare dependency and poverty have replaced restaurants, clubs and hotels.

"Idlewild is a microcosm of the larger U.S. society," says Walker, a retired WMU professor of sociology. "It is emblematic of the collective history of a people who have faced insurmountable odds, yet survived; a people who have made enormous contributions to the growth and development of a nation, yet are despised by many because of the color of their skin."

"Idlewild was more than a place," asserts Wilson, director of WMU's Africana studies program and professor of history. "It became known as the Black Eden. As many as 25,000 people would come up there during the height of the summer season, and its clubs, juke joints and bars became a finishing school for those who became heavies in the black music culture."

Wilson, who was first drawn to Idlewild as a Michigan State University graduate student examining the state's African American communities, has made the community the focus of his research for the past three decades. Walker caught Idlewild fever from Wilson, and the two began a four-year, collaborative investigation into the geographic, social, political and historical aspects of the community.

"Idlewild represents an aspect of the Black Experience that has not been as well explained as other parts of black life," says Walker, who retired from WMU in 1999. "Its rise to prominence as a stage for renowned black entertainers, the environment for thousands of vacationers, its rapid decline and its struggle to survive all recommended Idlewild as a prime candidate for a socio-historical investigation."

That investigation resulted in the book "Black Eden," which illustrates Idlewild's historical and cultural significance and its current plight. The book also examines the efforts being undertaken and still needed to help Idlewild thrive once again.

"To become 'a good community,' Idlewild must accept the definitional challenge and decide what it wants to become," Walker and Wilson write in "Black Eden." "Will it be primarily a retirement community? A black resort? A black historic community?"

"It'll probably be a combination of all of these," surmises Walker.

In the last two chapters of "Black Eden," Walker and Wilson outline measures that Idlewilders can take to help their community regain its prosperity. The authors point out that a number of factions are working on different plans to kick-start redevelopment in the community, but that these efforts are disjointed and do not take advantage of available resources.

"The most important thing is that they establish a vision and a comprehensive plan. A community cannot be revitalized in a piecemeal fashion," says Walker. "They also need to take advantage of the resources available to them. The community is part of a federally designated enterprise zone, FiveCAP [a local community action program] has an attractive revolving loan program to stimulate economic growth, and there is a coalition of concerned citizens keenly interested in revitalization."

The authors conclude that their analysis of the community shows it is headed in the right direction and that while long gone, Idlewild's prosperous past holds a key to its future.

"There appears to be a genuine interest among people with substantial influence and resources as the socio-historical story of Idlewild becomes known to outsiders," says Walker. "I think one can easily be optimistic about the future prospects of Idlewild."

Media contact: Marie Lee 269 387-8411, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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