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Former Detroit High School Teacher Leads Efforts to Revitalize the Former ‘Black Eden of Michigan’

A Michigan teacher is giving back to a once illustrious Black community and helping her students learn valuable life lessons at the same time.

Former Detroit high school teacher Maria Lawton Adams visited the community of Idlewild in 2020 and was devastated by what she saw. The 1,300 acres of land was established in 1912 and became a prime vacation destination for Black families from the 1920s through the mid-1960s.

WXYZ Detroit Screenshot

Famous Black entertainers, including BB King, Cab Calloway, Della Reese, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, and The Four Tops all graced stages of clubs located in the resort town, located about 3.5 hours from Detroit, in its heyday and historical figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Madam C.J. Walker owned property in the area.

“All these great musicians and actresses and actors found a place 2 ½ to 3 hours away from Detroit where they could perform at the Paradise Club or the Flamingo Club,” Lawton Adams said of the town formerly known as the “Black Eden of Michigan.”

After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Idlewild began to see a decline due to restrictions on where Black people could travel being significantly lessened. “Things started slowly deteriorating,” said Purdue University professor Ronald Stephens, who has studied and written about the community. “People abandoned homes that had been inherited to them by not paying taxes. Businesses started shutting down or were torn down or burnt down. … It was a whole other set of problems.”

In recent years, however, the area has been the focus of restoration efforts by local citizens and government as well. The state of Michigan invested $620,046  in the creation and completion of a 10-year strategic plan for the community that helped “improve the local infrastructure, create business opportunities and promote tourism.”

Revitalization projects have been created to draw interest and income such as a traveling museum and Idlewild Historic & Cultural Center, which were founded to preserve and share the area’s history, and the Idlewild International Film Festival, a yearly event since 2019.

In addition, at least 35 structures within the community have been marked as historic locations, including the home of America’s first open-heart surgeon., Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.

Lawton Adams’ disheartening visit to Idlewild inspired her to take action. With the experience under her belt of helping rehab the Tindal Rec Center on Detroit’s West Side as a safe space for children and seniors, she decided to take on Idlewild as her next project and saw it as an opportunity to lead the next generation as well.

“I said to myself, I wonder if I talk to the powers that be if the kids could spend their summer up here as opposed to staying in Detroit doing a project,” she told WXYZ Detroit.

The area’s population was fewer than 1000 in 2019, but Lawton Adams hopes to see it restored to its full glory, with herself and 24 young volunteers being the first to begin the revitalization.

“We clean up the brush and we paint the houses, put boards on them, so people coming into the town and just want to see what Idlewild is, it doesn’t look so bad from the street,” she said.

One of the first residences in Idlewild that young volunteers have begun fixing up is that of long-time resident identified only as Rambo, who was reportedly been living without heat or electricity in the community for years.

“We are fixing up Rambo’s house. We found out it’s a three-unit house, so we took the smallest unit and we completely tore it out,” Lawton Adams told the station. “They put up new drywall, a kitchen, bathroom, even landscaping outside and when they’re finished, he will get everything down to silverware brand new in his new apartment.”

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