Vacationing and the African-American Dream
In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.” Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’” In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America. The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century. Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity. Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.
Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts. Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.” Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.” A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”
The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild. Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?”
Advertisements for Idlewild appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder throughout 1916, with local agent J. Walter Hodge persistently lobbying for the resort. Hodge’s entrepreneurial ambition was typical of the people who bought and sold African-American resort properties in the Midwest. In 1900 Hodge was a railroad porter living in Boston, but by 1904 he had moved to Indianapolis. In 1917, Booker T. Washington biographers Emmett J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe singled out Hodge as a Washington success story, recognizing “J. Walter Hodge of Indianapolis, IND, who, inspired by the recitals at the Business League meetings, gave up his job as a Pullman car porter, after he had saved some money, and is now the owner of a large real estate business.” In April, 1905 Hodge appeared in a massive full-page advertisement as Secretary and manager for the Afro-American Realty Company in Indianapolis, and in August 1910 he went to New York City and appeared at the National Negro Business League conference and told his story to 1100 delegates including Booker T. Washington. By Idlewild’s opening in 1916 Hodge had become the Indianapolis representative for the Michigan resort.
Fox Lake began to sell lots near Angola, Indiana in 1926, two years after a group of White entrepreneurs purchased the property for a segregated resort. The Walker Manufacturing Company’s long-time secretary Violet Davis Reynolds and husband David rented a cabin at Fox Lake in 1927, making them among the earliest Indianapolis visitors to Fox Lake. Glory-June Grieff’s thorough National Register nomination for the Fox Lake Historic District identifies Fort Wayne entrepreneur Carl Wilson as one of the first African Americans to build at Fox Lake, constructing his first of three cottages in 1928.
Wilson made his initial fortune as an exterminator, beginning the very profitable Fort Wayne Exterminating Engineering Company in about 1918. In 1926 the Pittsburgh Courier applauded Wilson’s firm and adorned the article with a picture of “69 rats killed the Wilson way.” In April, 1935 Wilson had secured sufficient success to propose a program to train unemployed men to become exterminators and “learn the Wilson way.” In 1937 the Indianapolis Recorder’s Winifred Martin reported on Wilson’s second enterprise, the well-known Chicken Shack restaurant. Martin detailed a trip home to Indianapolis from Fox Lake on which her party “stopped in Fort Wayne to enjoy one of Carl Wilson’s rare chicken dinners. He has a luxurious chicken shack. People come from miles around to enjoy his chicken and frog legs.”
Martin rhapsodized that “hills, dales, dens, alcoves, tall trees, rippling brooks are all a part of the picturesque scenery” at Fox Lake, but her picture of the resort’s guests also underscored that on the eve of World War II it was a refuge for many of Indianapolis’ most prominent African American entrepreneurs and professionals. She reported that “there is a hotel, but many people have found it much nicer to have cottages of their own. I spotted the cabins of Atty. Ransom, Shirley Winfrey, Henry Fleming, Carl Wilson of chicken shack fame of Fort Wayne. … Finally, we reached Mr. and Mrs. Alley’s lovely and unique cottage. There is a large kitchen downstairs, and upstairs, a charming living room and four bedrooms. All the cottages are electrically lighted, and all the conveniences of home may be enjoyed.”
Many of these most prominent African Americans vacationing at Fox Lake were business people or professionals. For instance, “Atty. Ransom” was Freeman Ransom, lawyer and general manager for the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company who became an Indianapolis City Councilman in 1938. Shirley Winfrey was a mortician and World War I veteran who had served in a medical detachment of the Pioneer Infantry, likely serving as a mortician in France. Henry Fleming was a lifelong politician, serving as Director of the Negro Bureau of the Democratic Party in Indiana in addition to supervising the city’s garbage collection and managing an Indiana Avenue restaurant. William Alley was a Fox Lake real estate agent whose primary salary came as Hugh McKennan Landon’s houseman for at last 25 years, first at Oldfields (where Alley and his family lived on the grounds) and then after 1932 at Four Winds Estate on Spring Mill Road until Landon’s death in 1947.
While realtors lobbied that all African Americans could own their own homes if not vacation properties as well, the purchase of vacation properties was practical for very few Americans. Claudia Polley’s grandmother Marion EBD Burch had managed Fox Lake for several years, and Polley concluded in 1993 that 11 families had cottages at Fox Lake in 1936. A 1916 Idlewild ad celebrated that “over 4000 lots have already been sold,” but most segregated getaways had much more modest sales. As it prepared to open in Summer 1926, Idlewild of Indiana began selling open lots in Johnson County for $46.50 (a decade earlier, 25’ X 100’ Idlewild Michigan lots were being sold for $19.60). This was not an especially realistic option for many families, who would then need to build a structure, and the Idlewild of Indiana venture collapsed within a year.
On the one hand, securing standing in the “middle class” was not simply a confirmation of affluence. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s 1945 Black Metropolis concluded that to be middle class in Black Chicago was to be distinguished “from the lower class by a pattern of behavior expressed in stable family and associational relationships, in great concern with `front’ and `respectability,’ and in a drive for `getting ahead.’” Such a “middle class” mindset was appealing to many African Americans, for whom “middle class” was as much a statement of ambition and desire as it was a confirmation of concrete affluence. On the other hand, though, most segregated resorts remained relatively exclusive places into the 1950s. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton suggested in Black Metropolis that only the most affluent African Americans in Chicago “have their summer homes in the lake regions of Michigan and northern Illinois.” In 1944 Gunner Myrdal painted a somewhat less exclusive picture of African-American resorts, but he concluded that “while there are some Negro resorts which can be enjoyed by poor Negroes, the number of this class actually able to patronize them is small.” Some working-class people who went to resorts like Idlewild simply visited on scattered summer weekends, and their vacation spots were often quite marginal and in many cases were simply glorified tents.
Much of the support for African-American resorts invoked racial pride discourses, which was a routine sentiment projected onto Black businesses. Idlewild of Indiana, for instance, launched an ambitious Spring Campaign in 1927, including a March lecture at which the speakers agreed that “if the colored people of Indianapolis wanted to free themselves of segregation and other barriers the solution was to be found in the effort of Negroes to control their own Parks, businesses and various enterprises.” At the very same moment, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was championing similar causes and organizing a chapter in Idlewild, Michigan (the UNIA’s organization in Idlewild is detailed in a fascinating 2004 study by Ronald Stephens). Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA’s first American chapter in 1917 in New York, stressing African pride and Black economics and reaching an international membership of perhaps 6 million followers in the early 1920s.
Membership declined after Garvey’s 1925 arrest and deportation two years later, but UNIA chapters continued in many cities including Indianapolis. UNIA meetings were held in Indianapolis for ten consecutive nights in August 1928, and in May 1929 two separate UNIA chapters in Indianapolis merged as a single division with mortician Thomas E.J. King as its President. Division 117 of the UNIA was established in Indianapolis by 1930, and it was meeting throughout the 1930s (e.g., 1930, 1936). In April 1939 the Indianapolis chapter of the UNIA was holding Sunday and Wednesday meetings at 1703 Columbia Avenue. However, there is no evidence that the UNIA organizing success in Idlewild was reproduced in Fox Lake.
The Idlewild of Michigan lot owners appear to have formed a formal Indianapolis association in October, 1927, when the Indianapolis Recorder reported that 14 people met at the home of Alice Kelly and “formed a temporary organization.” Alice P. Kelly met Madam Walker in 1910 at the Eckstein Norton Institute, where she taught Latin at the industrial training and teacher’s institution in Cane Spring, Kentucky. When Eckstein Norton merged with Lincoln Institute in 1912, Kelly came to Indianapolis, where she became the factory forelady for the Walker Company. Kelly remained one of Walker’s closest friends until Walker’s death in 1919. Walker’s will left her “friend and forelady” Kelly $10,000 and a “life position in the Mme. C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company,” which she held until her death in April, 1931. Walker’s will also left $2000 to company bookkeeper Violet Davis (who with future husband David Reynolds was perhaps the first African American household to rent cabins at Fox Lake). However, in 1960 John Fraser Hart suggested that Indianapolis visitors to Idlewild were relatively rare, accounting for perhaps 5% of the community.
Most of this evidence suggests that until World War II Fox Lake was a relatively exclusive getaway. In 1927 the Indianapolis Recorder’s encyclopedic social news columns identified just 18 people visiting Fox Lake in the resort’s first year. In August, for instance, Fred and Mary McClanahan, C.H. Gibson and wife, and Harold F. and May Smith were part of a party including “several cars from Detroit,” none of whom appear to have been from Indianapolis. McClanahan was a Carrier Mills, Illinois coal miner and World War I veteran; Gibson was an Elkhart physician; and Smith was a missionary and teacher who would later serve as the Fisk University registrar (he also was White). Gibson eventually moved his practice to Indianapolis in 1932, where he was active in Mt. Paran Baptist Church. In 1946, 32 vacationers to Fox Lake appeared in the Recorder, and again they were mostly from outside Indianapolis.
In 1960 John Fraser Hart argued that Idlewild’s audience expanded in the 1930s to include working-class people with upwardly mobile ambitions, which included laboring families from cities like Gary. There appears to have been some growth in the number of visitors to Fox Lake in the years following World War II, though the leadership remained drawn mostly from professionals and entrepreneurs. The Fox Lake Property Owners Association appears to have been quite active in the 1950’s, and the membership continued to include many professionals: in 1950 and 1951, for instance, the Talladega and Yale-trained mortician and minister Plummer Jacobs was presiding over the group. In 1952 the Recorder reported that “several new neighbors and friends have joined the Fox Lake `family’ this season,” but after meeting at the resort the Association agreed that “busses and private groups will be required to pay a fee upon entering and visiting the resort.” Claudia Polley’s 1993 study of Fox Lake notes that many of the post-war Indianapolis vacationers to Fox Lake came from the congregation of Witherspoon United Presbyterian Church, and the Indianapolis Fox Lakers did indeed hold their 1957 Christmas party in the church’s recreation room.
Fox Lake secured a spot as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. In his 1960 study of Idlewild, John Fraser Hart cited an early promoter who may have captured the resort’s broad appeals when he argued that “when you stand in Idlewild, breathe the fresh air, and note the freedom from prejudice, ostracism, and hatred, you can feel yourself truly an American citizen.” Indeed, much of the attraction of resorts like Idlewild and Fox Lake was not necessarily their escape from racism or the genuine social pleasures of vacationing communities; instead, much of their appeal lay in the absence of surveillance that provided visitors a sense of freedom not often accorded them in crowded cities like Indianapolis.
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The Indianapolis Recorder
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1926 Idlewild Park of Indiana advertisement. The Indianapolis Recorder 17 July:5.
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Andrew W. Kahrl
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The New York Times
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Patricia L. Pilling
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Ronald J. Stephens
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Lewis Walker and Benjamin C. Wilson
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Victoria W. Wolcott
2012 Politics and Culture in Modern America: Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters : The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
2013 Fox Lake Resort, west end (NRHP) Angola, Indiana by MrHarman-Own work
Oldfields 1975 image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives