Black Eden District judge recalls heyday of Michigan's Idlewild community

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." These opening words of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" are equally appropriate for one small city in northwest Michigan: Idlewild.

The resort, located in Yates Township, Lake County, near Baldwin, was a popular and thriving African-American vacation community in the 1920s to the 1960s. People who went to the "Black Eden," as it was sometimes called, remember it as both relaxing and exciting, an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors by day and an adult night life with famous stars of the times after the children went to bed.

"Its strength was the camaraderie and the reunion aspect, meeting and greeting other people year after year, as new friendships developed," says 61st District Court Judge Benjamin Logan, whose father owned a business there in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Idlewild's very existence was necessitated by a negative force in our nation's history, racial segregation. For many individuals, the first six decades of the twentieth century were indeed the worst of times, a frustrating period to be African-American.

A black middle class emerged, composed of small business owners and professionals. Idlewild drew from that group, offering a place free from the bigoted behavior African-Americans might encounter in big cities like Detroit and Chicago. People came from all over the United States.

Founding entrepreneurs in the early 1900s offered bus trips, and encouraged those who took them to buy land there. Many did, including Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (noted as the first doctor to perform successful open heart surgery, in 1897) and the first female millionaire of any race, Madam C.J. Walker.

At the same time, black entertainers were prohibited from appearing on most mainstream stages, so venues like the nightclubs in Idlewild drew well-known performers well beyond what would be expected for a small town.

Ironically, the legal end of segregation through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 endangered places like Idlewild as African-American-owned businesses designed to serve segregated communities competed in a market where everyone had broader choices.

Says Judge Logan, "Idlewild began to decline sometime around the mid-1960s after integration - it's kind of interesting. People don't like to talk about it, but integration killed black America, black American businesses. For a long time that seemed to be a taboo subject," he reflected, "but people are starting to talk about it now a little more."

Logan's father had only purchased the Flamingo in 1964. The Flamingo was one of three nightclubs in Idlewild still going strong. An individual Logan refers to as "a little more devious" (because he allegedly made his initial money from running numbers) owned the Paradise Club; the El Morocco was an after-hours establishment.

Logan managed the club for his father during summers while he attended Ohio Northern University (graduating with a major in accounting and history in 1968). He says that the Flamingo and the Paradise Club would stagger their shows' start times so people could really make a night of it -- and continue into the wee hours at the El Morocco.

The tour for black performers of those decades was sometimes called the "Chitlin' Circuit," a play on the Borscht Belt, where Jewish performers operated under similar constraints. As African-American recording artists grew in popularity after World War II, clubs that catered to African-American audiences got the cream of the crop.

Logan mentions shows by Arthur Prysock, Della Reese, Diana Washington, Brook Benton, the Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin. History also records Idlewild visits by Jackie Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and B.B. King. Logan had an opportunity to meet and speak privately with Arthur Prysock, a jazz singer from the big band era to the disco age, and popular rock/rhythm 'n' blues musician Brook Benton.

"So the lure for a lot of people was that you had top name entertainment," Logan observes. He notes that African-Americans were by no means the only people in the audiences. "Most people are not aware of the demographics of the crowds; it was about 65 percent white and 30-35 percent black in the 1960s," he says. "What happened was, a lot of whites at the various resorts around Big Rapids and nearby cities would come down to hear the entertainer for that evening."

Logan says that there were all kinds of things for young people to do as well. When he visited as a child and teenager, he would go to Poll's Skating Rink. "It was not modern. There was a warp in the floor and there were four big posts. They sold ice cream there, and you could put your coins in the jukebox. But kids are kids and we enjoyed it."

There was also a riding stable, where "young and old alike" toured all around the resort. Logan says that enterprising youngsters like himself could get free rides by acting as tour guides.

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Judge Logan, who was first elected as District Court Judge in 1988, had worked in the private sector since he got a paper route at the age of ten, including a year after his undergraduate degree. He returned to Ohio Northern University for his 1972 law degree.

He then worked at Legal Aid of Grand Rapids, and became a senior partner at Logan and Beason, specializing in personal injury, civil rights and criminal law. He has served the community in many capacities, including as a Michigan Civil Rights referee and through the NAACP. He established and presides over the Floyd Skinner Bar Association. He has won many awards, including the 1996 Giant of Giants Award presented by Grand Rapids Community College.

Idlewild still exists, but has fallen on economic hard times. Judge Logan, who still owns a cabin there, returned in 2010 when five places in the community were given historic designations. "Those of us who went to Idlewild for years still have an affinity, and our children are developing that same affinity."

Promoters currently hold a jazz festival there every summer, and Logan believes that can help. "If they would promote it as a reunion-type atmosphere, it would enhance the participation and create a lot of momentum."

Idlewild had a positive effect on Logan and, he feels, on others. "It gave you the sense that you're seeing people who are succeeding, individuals owning their own businesses, and you could succeed too."

Published: Wed, Oct 5, 2011

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