Looking back: Longtime Idlewild vacationer remembers days gone by

Photos and story by Miranda Roberts

Star Staff Writer 

From growing up in the south to vacationing in Idlewild, Gladys Scott Griffin has lived to see a lot of change in her 105 years.

She was born on Sept. 11, 1907, in Macon, Ga. Like many blacks born during that time in the South, Gladys does not have a birth certificate.

“Then, most of us were born at home,” Gladys recalled. “They just went to black houses like a census and wrote the names of the people who lived there and how many children.”

Growing up in the South as a black woman, Gladys experienced cruelty because of her color, her daughters, Julie Carter and Carolyn Stevens, said.

“We don’t know all of the awful things she went through,” Julie said. “Our father was born in Detroit, so he didn’t experience the things that she did. But he wouldn’t travel with her to Georgia because they would have been stopped. People would have assumed it was a mixed marriage because of the difference in color.”

Gladys’ first husband, George Robert Scott, had a darker complexion than hers. Because of her skin tone, Gladys faced hostility from her own race and ignorance from white people.

“I’m pale, and so I was sometimes mistaken for being white,” Gladys said, laughing. “I remember one time I was walking along the road in Macon, and a white man asked me if I wanted a ride. When he got to my house, my grandmother came out, and she’s dark. When he saw her he was in shock.”

When her mother died at 26, Gladys lived with her grandparents while she continued her education at Ballard Normal School, a co-ed school for black children started by missionaries.

As an orphaned teenager, Gladys moved to Detroit to live with her aunt. As a young adult, she began to visit Idlewild.

“There was no class system in Idlewild,” Gladys remembered. “My husband was a policeman. There were doctors and lawyers – all sorts of people who came here. But everyone was just black, and that was it, nobody else wanted to be here, so we had it to ourselves.”

Gladys said Idlewild was a bustling place back then, with three clubs that frequently had performers like The Four Tops, Jackie Wilson and Diana Washington. It was a place where black people felt safe, a place she and her family came to love.

“Back then, during segregation, this was one place you could come and not have to worry,” Carolyn said. “In this little cocoon, you had the freedom to just be yourself and enjoy and not have to worry about the outside world.”

Carolyn and Julie said their parents had a way of shielding them from the truth of segregation.

“They shielded us from the bad things of segregation, even within Detroit,” Julie said. “We didn’t know what was going on in the south until it became news in the ‘60s. In our little neighborhood, we could go anywhere because it was a black neighborhood.

“When we would visit mom’s sister in West Virginia, our parents would pack a lunch and we would eat on the picnic tables alongside the highway. We didn’t know the reason for that was because they never knew if they would be accepted at a restaurant. We thought it was a big deal because we were having a picnic.”

Coming from a time when blacks faced prejudice, Gladys never thought she would see a black president elected to the White House.

“I just shook my head,” Gladys remembered. “Coming from Macon, Ga., I never thought I would live to see a black president. I was ecstatic.”

She spent many of her more recent birthdays at Idlewild, which is where she heard of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

“Usually we would have her birthday here,” Julie said. “We would do some sort of trip, and on 9/11 we were taking her on an excursion on the Badger. That’s when they announced the terrorist attacks. She turned around and said ‘Why did they do it on my birthday?’ and we said, ‘Mother, had they known it was your birthday they would have changed the date, but they didn’t know.’”

Just before her 100th birthday, Gladys had a stroke. She no longer can walk and must rely on others to help her, which isn’t easy.

“Never would we have dreamed after that stroke that she would still be here,” Carolyn said. “She is very unusual. She was 99, living in her own house, driving a minivan. She had just come back from playing bridge when she had the stroke. She lost the use of her right hand and she was never able to walk after that.”

Gladys now lives in an assisted living facility in Southfield. But every summer, she spends a month in Idlewild with her daughters, who summer at the cottage she bought in 1968.

“Coming here has always been about family,” Carolyn explained. “Even as the family has grown, this has always been the core. This is where we all come because everyone lives in different places. They all come here at some time, and they all try to come while she is here. She’s still the draw.”

Although Idlewild has changed a great deal since Carolyn and Julie came as children, Julie said they enjoy the slower pace.

“At one point, we would say, ‘There’s no one up here but retirees,’” Julie said, laughing. “But now we are the retirees. We are those people.”