What’s next for Idlewild? Once known as the ‘Black Eden’ of Michigan

‘Community is what’s going to keep us all together’

It’s a community on the west side of Michigan once known as “Black Eden.”

It was a safe haven for Black families and became famous for its nightlife.

In the early 1900s, Idlewild was a resort town where Black people could legally buy property. But the 1,300 acres became largely abandoned in the ‘60s with desegregation.

Local 4′s Paula Tutman has been following the story and recently returned to see how the concept of progress is being redefined by generations of Idlewilders.

There’s a house that’s been purchased and is being refurbished by a judge from Detroit, according to neighbors.

And then there’s Doug Brown, now able to work remotely. He sold his home in Florida to live in Idlewild permanently, he is the 4th generation to own property there. His children are the 5th generation.

“For me, there’s a place in my heart that I don’t know how to describe. There’s a feeling that I get when I come to Idlewild that I don’t get anywhere else,” Brown said.

Locals, who for generations, have been stewards of Idlewild proper -- once called “Black Eden” -- plan its “what’s next.” But without a strategic plan, or specific funded tourism efforts from the state, those tied to the community by heart and history are piecemealing a comeback.

They’re refurbishing historic landmarks like the Flamingo Club, once known for big music acts like Sarah Vaughn and Jackie Wilson and beautiful showgirls.

“We’re doing our part to put our best foot forward to show that we’re putting our blood and sweat into it, then hopefully we can get it backed up with grants to go in and fix the inside,” Oliver Grant Myers said.

But there’s a new act in the wings, less focus on the flashy past, and instead capitalizing on the secret sauce basics of Black families -- building and strengthening community.

“You come here and you’re like, ‘I’m OK,’ and ‘I’m gonna be OK because I’m surrounded amongst family.’ And when I say, ‘I’m surrounded amongst family’, it’s not blood family, it’s friends,” Brown said.

Idlewild existed because of racism and exclusion in the early 20th century. Middle-class Blacks to wealthy businesspeople and physicians, innovators, entertainers, and athletes purchased here because Jim Crow laws gave them no place else to go. Now that Blacks can go and buy elsewhere, generations of Idlewilders are working to give Blacks a reason to come back and invest.

Every Wednesday in the summers, the Idlewild version of ladies who lunch, pizza, wine, bridge, and 365 combined years of commitment to Idlewild. Denise Bellamy is the president of the Idlewild Lot Owners Association.

“Idlewild is known for music, and I was part of the Ottawa Music Fest. And, of course, music. I love music, but community is what’s going to keep us all together. Music can come later. It can come anytime. But families, families and people who have been here for generations, they’ve held it down all these years. And so moving forward, I think community is what is going to have more lasting power,” Bellamy said. “Community, people bringing families up here then their families can introduce their families and that’s how you keep things moving.”

“Six generations of my family have been in the house that I now own. So that’s how long we’ve been coming up a long, long time,” Judith Berry Griffin said. “It goes back beyond the entertainment. And we have to start with why Idlewild was important when it started. Because there was a lot of unrest in the country, people didn’t feel safe. People were being lynched and harassed.”

“Many of us are looking back to 1913 and 1914, up to the 20s. And we are seeing the same kinds of things happening now that used to happen then. We see people being accosted and harassed, we see people wanting to feel safe. People wanting to really celebrate what we have achieved as a race since we have been here. And people are now coming back,” Judith Berry Griffin said.

One of Detroit’s newest Lions, Devin Funchess, has turned the Historic Red Rooster into Payton’s Bar and Grill

Weeknight evenings are for relaxing, swimming, paddleboarding, drinking in the sunset, and the calm before the weekends. Weekends are a draw for families and fun seekers with an endless lineup of events, music shows, and reunions.

Idlewild, no matter how it comes back, will look and feel different.

And even in this cocoon stage, as Idlewild is perched to emerge on the other side of history, a focal point of the growing consciousness of surrounding communities. Those communities that once excluded the residents of Idlewild and forced it to become the Black Eden it once was are now part of the inclusion of what it will become.

Read: The story of Idlewild: ‘Black Eden of Michigan’

About the Author:

Paula Tutman is an Emmy award-winning journalist who came to Local 4 in 1992. She's a Peace Corps alum who spent her early childhood living in Sierra Leone, West Africa and Tanzania and East Africa.