Most history buffs are unaware that one of America’s most successful early 20th century resort towns thrived in Idlewild, Michigan from 1915 until the late 1960s. During the Jim Crow era when discriminatory laws prohibited Black Americans from frequenting a great many hotels, restaurants, and other establishments, a group of real estate investors decided to construct a resort town which catered to professional Black travelers such as writers, doctors, and entrepreneurs who were looking for a place to relax during the summer months.
Idlewild was promoted as a sportsman’s paradise where visitors could hunt, fish, or swim surrounded by a serene forest. Black-owned hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs such as the Flamingo Club which hosted Black entertainers such as Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, and Count Basie soon sprang up. Writer and NAACP director W.E.B. Du Bois and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker both owned property in Idlewild.
Idlewild boomed until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up many new vacation opportunities for Black people who had previously been barred from certain establishments because of the color of their skin, By the early 1970s, the population of Idlewild rapidly declined and many once thriving businesses were abandoned.
In recent years, there has been a push to revive Idlewild. Older residents who once spent their summers dancing at the Flamingo Club and riding horses through the Manistee National Forest are working to attract new residents who will preserve the resort town’s culture. Visitors can take a driving tour through Idlewild which showcases some of the town’s former hotspots.
Idlewild is fairly sleepy these days, but visitors can still feel the pulse of a vibrant community that served as a treasured getaway for some of America’s most accomplished writers, entrepreneurs, and entertainers. The robust effort to preserve Idlewild is a testament to its storied history.