M: The Black Eden of Michigan.
Dr. Stephens, where in Michigan?
RONALD STEPHENS: It's in rural Michigan, roughly about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
: And how did that become the site for what I gather was a huge Midwestern resort and an extremely important African American resort?
STEPHENS: Primarily it was because of the location of the businessmen who were responsible for founding the community. You have to realize that this occurs at the time of legal Jim Crow segregation, and they felt that African Americans needed a place of rest and relaxation from racism in the cities in which they were traveling from.
: What years would you say were the heyday, the absolute peak of activity at Idlewild?
STEPHENS: Roughly between 1953 and 1963.
: Now we know that the hip-hop music of OutKast set in a Prohibition era movie is an anachronism. What kind of music would folks have heard at Idlewild? What sort of performers would they have heard in the day?
STEPHENS: They would've heard the up-and-coming soul music, some R and B, some jazz, blues. They would've heard Della Reese. They would've heard Jackie Wilson, who was the entertainer's entertainer. They would've heard the comedy of George Kirby. He was a great comedian.
Plus, they would've seen some of the classiest showgirls of the era. They would've seen what they called the Bragettes, which were dancers, women that wore high heels and they were able to really do some very clever and creative dance moves.
: The Bragettes?
: Why is there no longer a big resort at Idlewild, Michigan.
STEPHENS: Well, Idlewild experienced an economic decline roughly around 1964, 1965 actually, the same year the Voting Rights Act. The civil rights movement, integration was partly responsible for that. That is that there were other sites open to African American entertainers, first. And secondly, there were sites open to African American vacationers. Well, that's one reason.
But the most important argument which needs to be made is that the two major nightclub owners wanted to invest in the infrastructure, and the community wasn't quite ready for that. And so Idlewild, in a sense, was responsible for its own demise.
: Now I confess that as a native New Yorker, Idlewild will always be what they used to call Kennedy Airport. That's what we think of.
STEPHENS: Absolutely. It's spelled differently too.
: It's spelled differently. But there's a great joke about the name Idlewild, I gather, about what it suggested.
STEPHENS: Well, a little joke and a little folklore, I would call it. A playground for idle men and wild women.
: Idlewild. Well, Dr. Stephens, thank you very much for talking with us.
STEPHENS: You're very welcome.
: That's Ronald Stephens, who teaches at the Metropolitan State College of Denver and who is the author of Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan.
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