Idlewild, wild and free
Our jumpin’ rhythms always calling me,
Country air, sweet and strong,
Packing up my suitcase
So it won’t be long,
Sing and dance ’til sundown,
It’s such a rat race in Chicago town,
Still I feel like a child,
Cuz I’m heading up to Idlewild.
When Ray Kamalay of Lansing, Michigan, wrote this poem, he hoped to capture the excitement of Idlewild, a resort community in northern Michigan. From the 1920s through the 1960s, Idlewild in Lake County (about 60 miles north of Grand Rapids) was Michigan’s most important African American summer resort.
African Americans responded to segregation by developing their own places where they could go to relax and play. Idlewild was one of these places.
Idlewild opened in 1912 and grew rapidly. By the late 1920s more than 6,600 African Americans from all across the nation and Canada had purchased lots at Idlewild. At least 800 summer homes had been built by 1927.
At Idlewild, visitors could swim, fish, boat, hike, and enjoy “a hundred other recreations.” But most people came to Idlewild to relax and visit with friends and family.
Blacks from Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Detroit purchased lots at Idlewild. Idlewild’s most notable resident was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the most respected African American in the field of medicine. Dr. Williams bought a number of lots and sold them to friends and associates.
As the resort community grew, residents wanted other forms of entertainment. Soon, Idlewild became a showcase for black entertainers. Idlewild boasted the Paradise Club, the Flamingo Club, and the Purple Palace where Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Della Reese, Sammy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby and many others performed.
Idlewild boomed until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing segregation. African Americans began to leave Idlewild and stay at the same resorts as whites.
Today, Idlewild is a much quieter town. A museum, a cultural center, and an annual celebration remind us of the important role Idlewild played in the lives of thousands of African Americans.
Idlewild Community Newsletter (hasn’t been updated in over a year, but has some neat photos)
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.