IDLEWILD, Mich. — Idlewild, Michigan, was once known as a safe haven for Black Americans when segregation was at its peak. While the identity of the community hasn't changed today, its popularity has drifted away.
However, there's an effort to bring Idlewild back to its roots, turning old tales of the town's history into a modern reality. The people behind that effort said the change starts with restoring Idlewild's most iconic building — Hotel Casa Blanca.
“It’s just like everything else," said Dr. Charlene Austin, one of the women behind the vision. "If you take a seed, you plant it and you throw those seeds out there. What happens to those seeds? It grows into beautiful flowers. So you have to start somewhere.”
It might not look like it today, but the old seeds of Idlewild used to sprout with opportunity. Instead of beautiful flowers, they blossomed into a bustling resort town, a place for Black people to escape the dangers of America and enjoy life.
“This is where we were," Austin told FOX 17. "This was a great community. This was a community comprised of Black people that had businesses, that had homes, that lived at the lake and had different functions.”
Idlewild was founded in 1912. Jim Crow laws were in place, which meant so was segregation, giving Black Americans few places to vacation.
The community of Idlewild — an unincorporated community in Lake County — was one of those places. That earned it the nickname "Black Eden."
Dr. Ida Short, one of the other women helping restore the hotel, said, “When you think of Eden in the Bible, it’s a place where you don’t have worries. You don’t have concerns. Everything is provided for you.”
She added, “We had hotels; we had gas stations; we had stores; we had everything.”
At the center of it all was Hotel Casa Blanca. It opened in 1950 as a hub for hospitality, welcoming dancers, writers, political figures and the biggest names in Black entertainment, like Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin.
With 35 rooms to stay in, the hotel was one of the premier spots in that part of the state.
Austin said, “At the time, you could have a room here — even though you had to share a bathroom — for $7 a day! Which was big money during that time, believe me.”
Then in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the town's purpose disappeared. The vibrant sounds of jazz and soul have been replaced by the quiet rhythm of melting snow.
“When integration came about and we were able to come to other places, that’s when Idlewild started to lose its flavor," said Austin.
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Only 700 people still live in Idlewild today. After a few changes in ownership, people abandoned Hotel Casa Blanca, just like they did Idlewild. The place that helped bring hope to the Black community has laid vacant, for 30 years, in Michigan's poorest county.
However, a group of three Black female educators won't let that happen any longer.
“It’s just a beautiful building," said Austin. "It’s just beautiful. We need to bring that beauty back.”
The most recent owner, John Meeks, absolutely loved Idlewild. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. Before he did, Short said Meeks essentially gifted the hotel to their nonprofit called 1st Neighbor.
“He said, 'Make me an offer that I can’t refuse and I will sell it to you,'" said Short. "So I did.”
Part of that offer included a promise to restore this neglected building and revive the forgotten community.
Austin said, “I think that, once we get this building renovated, we will again give Idlewild a chance to really, really become fruitful."
They don't have any renderings of what it'll look like, but they said it will have a museum, a bed & breakfast, housing for veterans and — most importantly — a youth learning center.
Plenty of features will be packed into this 12,500 sq.-ft. building, offering renewed hope and opportunity.
Short explained one of the goals is to “[train] our students with the things that they’re going to need to get a degree, and undergrad degree and even a doctorate degree, in a lot of areas where there’s a critical shortage of minorities.”
Early renovations have already begun. The plan is to have everything complete by this time next year. Short said it'll cost up to $2 million, covered by grants and donations.
It's a large number, but they said the impact will be priceless, planting new seeds to help Black Eden blossom once again.
Austin said, “It’s a national treasure. We’re trying to preserve this treasure. Not just for us but for the generations to come.”
They said it'll take a village to make that happen. Cash donations help, but they're also looking for any physical artifacts or recorded/oral history of Idlewild to include in the museum.
If you're interested in making a contribution, you can always email them at email@example.com, or send items to their P.O. Box:
P.O. Box 213, 812 Essex Drive, Idlewild, Michigan 49642.
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