Some of the greatest African American musicians of our time performed during racial segregation—artists like Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and The Supremes. But if you were black, you weren’t allowed in the venue down the street. You had to go to Idlewild resort about thirty minutes northwest of Big Rapids.
“Everybody who was anybody came to Idlewild one way or another. They either had a cabin there or they came for the entertainment—just everyone," says Donna Odom, the executive director of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society.
Odom says she can remember fishing and swimming while her parents went to see the best acts in the country.
“And it had not to be too expensive because, you know, I know my relatives couldn’t have afforded really expensive places," says Odom. "So it was accessible to everyone too.”
Coy Davis Jr. of Grand Rapids will show his documentary What Ever Happened to Idlewild? Thursday night at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Davis is a Western Michigan University alum and used to host a public affairs show for CBS affiliate in Atlanta.
Davis says from about the 1940s to the early 1970s, Idlewild was the only resort that would accept African American families. People would drive long hours to vacation there.
“I had friends from all over the state as well as Chicago. And some of them I’m friends with today that are from Cleveland," he says. "And so, it was very cosmopolitan from that standpoint.”
But Idlewild is far from the hustling and bustling vacation spot it used to be. Odom says about all that remains of Idlewild resort today are a few historical markers.
“It’s so sad to see it because it’s kind of run down," she says. "You know they’re really trying to bring it back a little bit. They have the heritage center and people have had fundraisers to try to bring Idlewild back. And I know that people still have cabins up there, but it’s just not the same.”
After nightclubs opened their doors to African Americans, Idlewild took a turn for the worse. Black families didn’t need to drive all the way to Idlewild to find entertainment. And Davis says business owners at the resort didn’t have the means to fix up their crumbling buildings.
“When African Americans had a choice of going to a five-star club or a club that’s falling apart and the acoustics aren’t very good," Davis says. "The service may not be great because they don’t have enough people to work. Or going to somewhere where you spend your money you feel like you’re getting what your money’s worth. "
Though the need for Idlewild came out of discrimination, black businesses reaped the benefits.
“An old gambler once told me, ‘In every dark room there’s a little light.’ And Idlewild during segregation was that little light. And at that time because of segregation, African Americans were economically sound in terms of doing business with each other. During the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, because of segregation black businesses thrived in America. And of every dollar made by African Americans about 60 percent of it went to black businesses. Well when integration came along that ended. Now you have maybe a nickel out of every dollar made that goes to African American businesses.”
Coy Davis Jr. will lead a discussion before showing the documentary. Donna Odom encourages people to come early and reminisce about their childhood at Idlewild.