RONALD J. STEPHENS. Idlewild: The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of a Unique African American Resort V. W. Wolcott

The American Historical Review


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direct response to perils. The proposition says nothing about whether stable and capable groups will form. Just because there were great threats to American democracy hardly meant that an organization up to the task of addressing that emergency would appear and survive. How, then, did the NAACP emerge?

The short answer is that it took a lot of work and learning. Susan D. Carle’s vital book captures the organization’s halting, contingent origins and the intense, creative political thought behind this accomplishment.

The NAACP is not the only organization Carle treats.

She also sketches the National Urban League, and she shows how the two organizations arrived at a formal agreement to define and to “divide up” the civil rights portfolio (p. 275). The League focused on such questions as labor standards and urban policy issues in the

North. The NAACP focused on working through the rule of law to rebuild the biracial democracy that Reconstruction had previously created. Most of the book, though, is about the NAACP and it is that story that will stir every reader of this book.

One of Carle’s great strengths as a historian is her deep and empathic understanding of her protagonists.

One after another she introduces and tells their stories:

T. Thomas Fortune, William Monroe Trotter, Mary

Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, to name just the better known figures. In telling their personal and organizational histories we see how a “critical mass” developed (p. 261), step by organizational step, culminating in the making of the NAACP.

We also see the role of anger toward Booker T.

Washington in “defining the struggle.” Those who built the NAACP loathed Washington, even though they shared the goal of addressing America’s democratic tragedy. These rivals might be seen as part of a larger set of responses to the task of “defining the struggle.”

Indeed, this reviewer found it helpful to mentally place

Carle’s analysis in dialogue with Robert J. Norrell’s 2009 powerfully revisionist biography of Washington,

Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. Norrell showed thatWashington spent every waking minute fighting the growing danger around him. He forged useful relationships with Republican politicians, including

President Theodore Roosevelt, with federal judges, and with the barons of the Gilded Age. Carle shows that

Washington actually invented the civil rights litigation strategy. The institutionalization of that strategy ultimately required an organization such as the NAACP.

But Washington did it first. Washington also promoted moral suasion. He constantly talked to white audiences in the South, traveling far and wide, sometimes at great personal risk, and he published an enormous corpus of writings.

Putting Carle and Norrell together one can grasp that there were at least two strategic responses to the democratic crisis. From his Alabama headquarters at the

Tuskegee Institute, Washington sought to forge an elite coalition for change while he single-handedly kept white supremacist public opinion at bay. His northern competitors sought to develop and sustain democratically organized civil rights organizations that would fight the long war in the courts, in Congress, and in public opinion.

A key difference between the two responses is that one strategy collapsed because it assigned itself an insuperable task. Washington thought that he personally could resolve the emergency of disenfranchisement and

Jim Crow’s violent rise. As Washington failed, W. E. B.

Du Bois and others seized on his limitations to scapegoat him.

Demonization of Washington was indeed a key element of the epic struggle to establish the NAACP. How could it not have been? The stakes were enormous.

While Carle is fairly unsympathetic towardWashington because of his autocratic methods, she provides rich evidence of a powerful struggle—and thus of a movement-making dialectic—between Washington and the rival coalition that forged a different approach to “the struggle.”

In all, Carle has written an eye-opening book. She recaptures a courageous organizational response to a terrible public reversal a century ago, fuelled in part by a fierce rivalry with the so-called Tuskegee Machine.

Thanks to her passionate reconstruction of this littleknown process of building from the bottom up and of some of the emotions behind it we can now much better grasp how, why, when, and where the NAACP emerged, and how it began a daring quest to reconstruct American democracy.


Swarthmore College

RONALD J. STEPHENS. Idlewild: The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of a Unique African American Resort Town. Ann

Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 407.

Cloth $70.00, paper $35.00, e-book $35.00.

Ronald J. Stephens has published a comprehensive and definitive history of the African American resort in

Michigan: Idlewild. By employing community-based research methods, including extensive oral interviews and community activism, Stephens has compiled a detailed archive of the resort. And rather than viewing Idlewild in isolation, Stephens situates it in relation to the major midwestern cities where its clients came from, particularly Chicago and Detroit. Perhaps most impressively

Stephens covers a long chronological time span, telling the story of Idlewild from the 1920s to the present and offering solutions for its revitalization. By taking this approach he is able to examine intraracial conflict, particularly along class lines, and avoid an overly romantic vision of a lost world of segregated recreation.

Elite African Americans founded Idlewild during the

New Negro era as an exclusive resort for African Americans seeking escape from rampant discrimination.

Prominent African Americans, including W. E. B. Du

Bois and Louis Armstrong, visited the resort during the 1920s. Some bought plots of land to build cabins, and returned to the resort each summer with their families.

An annual Chautauqua provided edifying lectures and