Paradise found: A journey to Idlewild, America’s ‘Black Eden’


It is possible that the people who drove down the public access dock and launched their pontoon on to Idlewild Lake on July 4 didn’t know exactly where they were. Idlewild doesn’t necessarily have a beginning or an end. As someone told me, it’s someplace you know you’re in once you’re in it.

Plus, if they came from Route 10, they might have missed the “Welcome to Idlewild” sign just past the intersection light that marks the turn into the holiday resort. Longtime vacationers could never miss it at the end of the drive from Detroit or Indianapolis or Columbus. That light was a beacon, a welcome home.

Regardless, when the boaters began circling the lake with the Confederate flag hoisted in the air, they soon found out where they were. Dozens of voices carried across the water telling them to “Take down that flag!”, emblem of the Old South, the Confederacy and, among other things, a symbol of white supremacists.

Diana Embil, a retired judge from Chicago who has been coming to Idlewild since she was a child, couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the boat passing by her window that Sunday morning. She gathered with a crowd by the public boat launch and confronted the group consisting of a few men, a woman and some middle-school-aged children.

“You’re flying a flag into this African-American community,” Embil told them. “It’s like you’re coming in with Nazi swastikas into a Jewish synagogue. Do you understand the level of contempt and disrespect that you are showing?”

A child said that it was just a flag. The woman in the group apologised profusely and said they didn’t know what Idlewild was. The men ignored Embil completely. Stone-faced and silent, they took their boat out of the water. “I think they were mad they had to get out of the lake, but they weren’t antagonistic,” she says. “They were outnumbered.”

A hammock set up beside the lake
A hammock set up beside the lake. Idlewild is home to two of the few spring-fed lakes in Lake County © Donavon Smallwood

Idlewild has been a haven for black Americans for more than a century. It was founded in 1912 as a vacation resort for people of colour at a time when the country was in the grip of Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation. It became a place where black people could find safety and leisure, where they could be themselves. A brochure issued by the Idlewild Chamber of Commerce in 1955 promised that “here you can enjoy the vacation of your dream, free from the embarrassing discriminatory and petty prejudices you might encounter elsewhere”.

I first came across Idlewild in 2019 while producing a podcast about The Negro Motorist Green Book. A popular guide for black travellers first published in 1936, the book listed places — restaurants, hotels, gas stations, beauty parlours — where they would be welcomed. From 1938 to 1967, Idlewild and its “tourist homes” were listed in the Green Book, offering some measure of liberty in a country defined by its racism.

Idlewild and its meaning became a point of meditation for me. When Covid-19 arrived last spring, my world felt unfamiliar. The confluence of isolation, communal grief at the rising death toll — which disproportionately affected people of colour — and, yes, still, racial terrorism was profoundly unsettling. As the world shifted, I didn’t know what I would find once I stepped outside again. I was afraid of where I might find myself.

“Welcome to Idlewild” sign
“Welcome to Idlewild” sign © Donavon Smallwood

One day I called Mary Ellen Tyus, whom I had met in researching The Green Book the previous summer. A 78-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, her bright blue-green eyes sparkled when she spoke about Idlewild, a place she had gone nearly every year of her life. She called it “a pilgrimage”. I realised I wanted to follow the generations that had found respite there. So in August this year, I flew to Detroit from New York, hired a car and set off with photographer Donavon Smallwood. Our destination was Black Eden.

Idlewild sits on a 2,700-acre site in the midst of a forest of hardwoods and towering red pines in rural western Michigan. It contains two of the few spring-fed lakes in the county. In 1921, the sociologist and historian WEB Du Bois called it “the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years”, describing its “sheen of water and golden air . . . [the] nobleness of tree and flower of shrub”. But more than this, he wrote, Idlewild offered “absolute freedom from the desperate cruelty of the color line”. 

Du Bois was born just three years after the abolition of slavery and, by the time he visited Idlewild in the early 20th century, America was segregated. The “color line” demarcated where African Americans could and could not go. The Idlewild site had been acquired in 1912 by a group of white developers with the idea of marketing a resort to black people from across the Midwest. The developers divided up the land and sold it off in lots to the region’s small but growing black middle class: doctors, intellectuals, educators, engineers and entrepreneurs. This community soon made Idlewild its own, building holiday cabins, setting up businesses, hotels, a post office, a church.

Mary Ellen Tyus
Mary Ellen Tyus, a third-generation Idlewilder © Donavon Smallwood

You don’t go into Eden to ruminate about the horrors that sparked your flight there. But I find that if I ask around enough, gently, with care, people will sometimes talk about what drove their families to sanctuary in the first place.

Near Paradise Lake on the west side of Idlewild, I meet Judith Griffin, whose cottage here has hosted six generations of her family. She says her mother tended to only speak obliquely about the prejudice and racial terror she had experienced in the south, rather than refer to it directly. It was “coming out of Mississippi”. She had been sent north by her father when a neighbour down the way was lynched. Her friend Connie McKinley told me about the cousin who was waiting for Sunday school to start one autumn morning when 19 sticks of dynamite planted by the Klan blew her life away.

For some, Idlewild offered a place where these kinds of traumas could be set aside temporarily. Blair Evans’s grandparents started to visit in the 1920s and bought a place in the 1940s. “Idlewild was an extremely valuable safe space to be able to kind of have some equilibrium,” he tells me in the lobby-cum-restaurant that serves as a gathering place for visiting youth groups and local community meetings alike. “Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis — all of those areas were very compressed. Idlewild was an opportunity for folks who did come up to enjoy property ownership.”

Like many, Evans, 62, keeps a tally of when he was and wasn’t able to summer here. The family joke is that he has been coming since before he was born, as his mother visited in June of 1959 and he was born that July. He always understood the need for a place like Idlewild. Around the Sunday-night dinner table at his grandmother’s house, there was no hiding from the harsh realities of life in America.

Denise Bellamy’s Idlewilder’s Magazine archive
The magazine archive of Denise Bellamy, an Idlewilder © Donavon Smallwood

His family in Detroit was very involved in the community. An uncle founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Another was an attorney involved in passing civil rights legislation. One aunt was a pharmacist, another was a businesswoman who ran cultural bookstores. He remembers Martin Luther King Jr in his living room. His father, a physician, treated Malcolm X after his home in New York was firebombed. “A lot of the stories were about what is happening, why it’s happening, the systemic and institutional processes behind it. Not just how to fire-fight, but how to stop fires from cropping up, metaphorically speaking…

“Idlewild was a place that black folks developed for themselves during a period where there weren’t a lot of resources on the outside,” he adds. It was African-American entrepreneurs who saw Idlewild’s commercial potential and put up the investment to develop venues that attracted talent such as Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, the Dyerettes and the Four Tops, making it, for a time, one of the most well-known African-American resorts.

Idlewild’s heyday was in the mid-20th century. Once civil rights legislation passed in 1964, its unique status ebbed as African Americans were able to travel more widely. The shows wound down. As the summers quieted, the businesses that thrived on the annual influx of tourists found it tougher to maintain margins throughout the year. Many closed.

“I think a lot of folks imagined that all the places we couldn’t go to must be much more exciting than what’s going on here,” Evans explains. He studied electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, then co-founded a tech business. He travelled internationally, navigating non-black spaces. But it wasn’t always easy.

“There’s a little bit of tension that you carry on your shoulders when you know that at any point in time, someone may say something stupid, that you’re gonna have to check them on,” he says. “A lot of people started coming to the realisation that even though you can go anywhere, you’re not exactly home.” After his company, MicroTouch Systems, listed on Nasdaq in the 1990s, he retired and began to return to Idlewild more frequently.

A cross street in Idlewild
A cross street in Idlewild © Donavon Smallwood

“People started looking back and talking about how ‘I can feel the spirit of Idlewild, I can feel the ancestors,’” he says. “A lot of what you’re feeling is that it is a safe space. It’s your culture that’s represented here. Folks are on the same wavelength. It took a minute, I think, for that to start rising as a priority.”

But as Evans began visiting again, he found that some of Idlewild was being sold off, lot by lot, including the historic Morton’s Motel. “They were about to sell it to a company that runs a private prison up in Baldwin. And a cultural institution in downtown Idlewild being used to house prison guards was not going to work.”

So Idlewild, where Evans spent the summers of his youth, where he didn’t have to swim more than 200 feet to arrive at a family member’s house, became the place that tempted him out of retirement to preserve and share a legacy with more people. “There was this realisation that the things we love about Idlewild were not going to be here in another 10 years unless we got involved.” He and Idlewild’s historic preservation society bought the motel, which he now runs with his partner Susan Matous.

On the afternoon we meet, the motel is humming with activity. “East Eats”, an outdoor dining club that catered to communities of colour in Detroit during the pandemic, is testing its concept here. Matous and Evans believe that a place like Morton’s can provide the infrastructure to make the resort accessible to more people. “There’s been an increased number of folks who want to bring something up to Idlewild,” says Evans, citing events such as an electronic dance music festival, glamping and poetry in the woods. But it’s something more than events that attracts new Idlewilders, he believes: “It is a ‘I need this in my life’ kind of thing.”

Nicolena Stubbs has a voice that is as big and warm as her smile. I feel sheepish asking her about the July 4 incident. “Flying the Confederate flag in all places on Idlewild? If you’re not looking for a confrontation, you’re trying to incite something,” she says. “You don’t come to a place like this and do that.”

She had been increasingly shocked by how openly hateful people were in local social media groups. “I didn’t realise how bad it was until I really started monitoring some of these Facebook pages and it frightened me,” she says. “And it got so much worse once Trump was in office, it got so much worse toward the second and third year of his term.”

Like many people here, Stubbs’s connection to Idlewild goes back generations. Her parents met in the 1950s — her mother was here for an annual summer trip, her father was visiting a friend from Howard University. On their first date, her father read her mother poetry on the beach by the lake, under flickering gas lights. They married a year later in 1956.

Nicolena Stubbs and her husband
Fourth-generation Idlewilder Nicolena Stubbs and her husband, Levi Stubbs III © Donavon Smallwood

She points out the house across the water where her grandparents lived, and the one nearby where she could find her cousins. As a child she loved to search for frogs and other wildlife, and grew to know their secrets. “Whenever you move a boat or anything that’s kind of been sitting for a while and has darkness under it, you find all kinds of wonderful creatures. You always find the crawfish. And I’m really good at catching crawfish. People are afraid to catch them because they don’t want to get pinched. Well, I’m an expert.”

Stubbs’s children are the fifth generation of Idlewilders in her family. Her eldest has taken up clam-racing, pulling them out of the sand, lining them up and watching them scramble back to the water. She is managing a seven-boy brood, up here for a birthday weekend. They’ve spent the day exploring the sand dunes further west, and when I arrive they’re back in the water. The family lives in Detroit and access to nature is not something that can be taken for granted.

The history of the house is something Stubbs takes pride in, and wants to protect. It has only ever had two owners: a podiatrist from Chicago, Carrie Warner, and her own family. She shows me photos of Ms Warner in a small truck. “This woman came up here and did this for herself. Her husband was deceased.” There is a photo of Ms Warner and WEB Du Bois. The 1919 deed to the house is framed, as is her mother’s deed from 1971.

Nicolena Stubbs son Zavier at Idlewild Lake
Nicolena Stubbs’ son Zavier at Idlewild Lake © Donavon Smallwood

As a teenager she used to kayak across the lake to visit Mary Ellen Tyus and Mary Ellen’s mother, Mrs Anderson. They always had a plate of peanut butter cookies ready when she arrived. Stubbs almost starts to cry when she recounts this memory — at the people that loved and looked out for her, the kinship that’s knit this place together for decades. “What you did have was an incredibly strong community . . . I don’t want the history to be watered down to the point that it’s non-existent. Because the ­history, it creates a culture.”

Stubbs’s mother got the house in Detroit and the cottage in Idlewild when she and her husband divorced. She kept both, all while raising five children and getting recertified to teach. “I think she realised the solace that a place like this can bring to children was so valuable. So she held on to it no matter what. And all of us enjoyed it. A lot of the people who are still holding on to their property are elders right now. If the younger generation doesn’t take over and keep it up, that whole family legacy is lost.”

There are some things that threaten Idlewild and one of them is depopulation. At the height of its popularity, in the 1950s and 1960s, upwards of 25,000 people would visit the resort in the summer. Today the population peaks at about 5,000 and fewer than 1,000 people are thought to live in Idlewild year-round. But Stubbs says that to reduce its meaning to numbers would be a disservice. “I know all of these people who have been here all this time, who’ve never left it, never abandoned it, always loved it, always cherished it.”

Near the end of my stay, I meet Lydia Marie Hicks. She found refuge here at the height of the pandemic. A strange confluence of events — a toxic situation at work and an abusive boss, a payout after she was illegally arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest — led her to Idlewild. She first heard about it while studying at the California Institute of the Arts years earlier, when she stumbled upon another black resort community at Val Verde.

Last summer she bought what was formerly the Poindexter Motel. She survived a harsh winter in Michigan, renovating the interior to its original features, complete with mint-green accents, and has expanded the porch. She shows me a 1920s postcard of the hotel that depicts the then-owners, a black family, standing proudly outside. This was also an era where postcards of lynchings were popular and in wide circulation. “It just hit me one day that there could have been a mailman who had in the same pile of mail these two ultra-racial realities.”

Flower planted locally
Flowers planted locally. Poindexter Motel owner Lydia Marie Hicks is reviving the town’s garden club © Donavon Smallwood

If history has a weight, it also gives you buoyancy. There are reminders everywhere of those who have come before. Whether it’s the restored cottage of the black American novelist Charles W Chesnutt or the trumpet that once belonged to Louis Armstrong and was found in an attic. Or a gardening club. Hicks is reviving one run by a lady called Lela G Wilson, who came here from Chicago with her husband in the 1920s and was instrumental in developing Idlewild.

Hicks has found a sense of possibility here in the native plants, the buildings, her plans to turn the Poindexter into an artist’s residency. She is inspired by the past. “All the things that people were doing — there was a credit union. The first hospital and electricity in the county were here. It was a community we’ve all been dreaming about: self-determined, self-sufficient. It wasn’t overly affluent, but it was inclusive of everyone and everyone was taking care of each other.”

The other day she was helping a man called Oscar Brown, who owns the lot at the entrance to Idlewild, as he lay down mulch and planted flowers. “I was introducing myself and I’m like, ‘I’m a film-maker.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, have you ever heard of Oscar Micheaux?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s my favourite film-maker,’” she says. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my grandpa.’ I was starstruck.”

Although there are dozens of historical landmarks here, preservation so far hasn’t been an effective path to sustaining the community. The meaning of Idlewild seems to be threatened as you radiate outward from the lakes.

There is the giant “Fuck Biden” flag on the other side of Route 10 from the main entrance. Drive down to Baldwin, the nearby village, and the contrast is even more stark. Western Michigan is very white and very poor. Twenty-one per cent of people in Lake County live below the poverty line. A gift shop that also doubles as a thrift store in Baldwin displays a selection of Trump 2024 hats. The training ground of the militia who attempted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a mere 25-minute drive away.

The younger generations who come to Idlewild with parents and grandparents to swim in the lake, fish, barbecue, eat and laugh and dance don’t have any choice but to be more direct on the subject of race than their elders. Cultivating a consciousness of what it means to be a black person in America is partly in the names that we must remember — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — but it can also be in the places that people have set aside for us.

Lydia Marie Hicks tells me how Lela G Wilson named some of the streets here for black cities that she hoped people would visit Idlewild from — Chicago, St Louis, Tampa. But also for what she hoped they would find when they arrived: Generosity, Joy, Creation.

I think about legacy, those who’ve made this place what it is. The small purveyors of the corner shop or the roller rink. The generations of families who have sought respite and pleasure and kinship here. I think their dreams inspire my dreaming too.

Oluwakemi Aladesuyi is an FT audio journalist in New York

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