In the early 1900s, the town of Idlewild in northeastern Michigan was a vacation resort for prominent African Americans. Jokingly called “the Black Eden” Idlewild was rumored to get its name from the idle men and wild women who lived there. During the summers, more than 25,000 people visited the area, some even built homes there, including professionals like Madam C.J. Walker and W.E.B. Dubois.
Founded in 1912, the community held its ground as a place for the black middle class, who were victims of discrimination at other leisure developments. Ironically, Idlewild Island was owned by four white landowners and their wives, who saw opportunity in black land developments. The group would eventually turn the land over to a few of the prominent black landowners, including Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first surgeon to practice open-heart surgery. Idlewild was responsible for building one of the largest black land-owner groups ever, the Idlewild Land Owners Association, with members from 34 states. The town eventually became self sufficient with a railroad, stores and a post office – owned and operated by African Americans.
Entrepreneurs like Phil Giles, (who became the town’s mayor), and Arthur “Big Daddy” Braggs built nightclubs and hotspots in the city. They attracted performers like Della Reese, T-Bone Walker, Jackie Wilson and The Four Tops.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the development of credit cards and competition, the children of Idlewild founders moved away for better opportunities. But all wasn’t lost; retirees took over, rebuilt the island and renamed it Williams Island, after Daniel Hale Williams. Though Idlewild may not be what it was in 1912, tourists keep the island alive with the Idlewild Jazz Festival, constant renovation and Idlewilders Weekend activities on the Fourth of July.
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