New Book Focuses On Historic African American Resort Town

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Ronald Stephens (photo: Rachael Stanley, Ohio University College of Arts & Sciences)

During two periods in the 20th century, a small Michigan town called Idlewild was a popular resort community for the black middle class. It attracted intellectuals such as Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois during the 1920s, and top black entertainers, from Jackie Wilson and the Four Tops to Della Reese and T-Bone Walker, during the 1950s.

Today the Lake County town has become an "idle place," however, that’s searching for a new identity, said Ronald Stephens, an associate professor of African American studies at Ohio University.

Stephens is the author of Idlewild: The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of a Unique African American Resort Town (University of Michigan Press). He's spent 20 years interviewing residents and vacationers, as well as reading through archives and microfilmed collections of historical black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Michigan Chronicle to paint a portrait of this legendary resort town.

Few other resort towns catered to the black middle class during the segregationist period, although places like Idlewild did exist—American Beach in Florida, Highland Beach in Maryland, and Oak’s Bluff in Massachusetts.

Those who frequented Idlewild from the 1920s until after World War II identified with the New Negro age, which included the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement, Stephens said. Visitors included "black businessmen and women, people who owned black newspapers, barber shops, beauty salons, mom and pop stores in black neighborhoods and communities," he noted. 

After experiencing two peaks as a vacation resort for the black middle class—first in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and then again in the 1950s and 1960s—Idlewild faced a social and economic decline. Most scholars argue that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contributed to this downturn, but Stephens presents another argument.

"Most of the literature says that what killed Idlewild was that the entertainers stopped going. After the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the entertainers and the black middle class could go other places," Stephens said. "But that’s not the only thing that killed it. Those entrepreneurs did not reinvest in the community."

Few developments have been made in Idlewild since the 1960s, and economic recessions have led to a drop in employment opportunities for residents. The resort town has survived mostly on tourism from retirees who remember the lively scenes from earlier decades.

After 30 years of economic decline in Idlewild, the state of Michigan assisted the town through a federal grant for historic preservation. Idlewild became the first site to have five historical markers revealed on the same day, in the same place.

Stephens notes that today, however, Idlewild lacks the resources and leadership to promote tourism. The residents continue to grapple with whether to try to regain the Idlewild of the past, he says, or pursue a new identity.

This story appears in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine.