“Do Big Things”: Madam C.J. Walker’s Great-Great-Granddaughter on History, Ancestors, and Villa Lewaro
Every time I walk through the doors of Villa Lewaro -- the mansion my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, called her “dream of dreams” -- I always take a moment to imagine the ancestors and the magic they must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of its majestic portico to the balustrades of its grand terrace, the original stucco facade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the washerwoman-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.
The New York Times pronounced it “a place fit for a fairy princess.” Enrico Caruso, the world-famous opera tenor, was so entranced by its similarity to estates in his native Naples that he coined the name “Lewaro” in honor of A’Lelia Walker Robinson, Madam Walker’s only daughter.
Walker told her friend Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, that after working so hard all her life -- first as a farm laborer, then as a maid and a cook, and finally as the founder of an international hair care enterprise -- she wanted a place to relax and garden and entertain her friends.
She also wanted to make a statement, so it was no accident that she purchased four and a half acres in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, not far from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit amidst America’s wealthiest families. She directed Vertner Woodson Tandy -- the architect who already had designed her opulent Harlem townhouse -- to position the 34-room mansion close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.
Indeed, the Times reported that her new neighbors were “puzzled” and “gasped in astonishment” when they learned that a black woman was the owner. “Impossible!” they exclaimed. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”
The woman born in a dim Louisiana sharecropper’s cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River now awoke each morning in a sunny master suite with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. The child who had crawled on dirt floors now walked on carpets of Persian silk. The destitute laundress, who had lived across the alley from the St. Louis bar where Scott Joplin composed ragtime tunes, now hosted private concerts beneath shimmering chandeliers in her gold music room.
But the home was not constructed merely for her personal pleasure. Villa Lewaro, she hoped, would inspire young African-Americans to “do big things” and to see “what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.”
“Do not fail to mention that the Irvington home, after my death, will be left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race -- a sort of monument,” she instructed her attorney, F. B. Ransom. As the largest contributor to the fund that saved Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, she understood the importance of preservation as a way to claim and influence history’s narrative.
For her opening gathering in August 1918, Madam Walker honored Emmett Scott, then the Special Assistant to the U. S. Secretary of War in Charge of Negro Affairs and the highest ranking African-American in the federal government. At this “conference of interest to the race” -- with its who’s who of black Americans and progressive whites -- she encouraged discussion and debate about civil rights, lynching, racial discrimination, and the status of black soldiers then serving in France during World War I.
After a weekend of conversation, collegiality, and music provided by J. Rosamond Johnson -- co-composer of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” -- and Joseph Douglass, master violinist and grandson of Frederick Douglass, Scott wrote to her, “No such assemblage has ever gathered at the private home of any representative of our race, I am sure.”
After Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919 -- barely a year after moving in -- her daughter continued the tradition of hosting events, occasionally opening the home for public tours to honor Walker’s legacy. Later dubbed the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by poet Langston Hughes because of her impressive soirees, A’Lelia Walker feted Liberian President Charles D. B. King and his entourage in 1921 with a Fourth of July fireworks display and concert by the Ford Dabney Orchestra.
In 1917, Madam Walker organized the first annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union in Philadelphia. At the 1924 convention, sales agents and beauty culturists pose for a picture at Villa Lewaro.
In November 1923, limousines lined Broadway as several hundred bejeweled and fancily dressed wedding reception guests arrived from Harlem’s St. Philips Episcopal Church where my grandmother Mae had married her first husband, Dr. Gordon Jackson. The following summer, more than 400 sales agents and cosmetologists journeyed from all over the United States and the Caribbean for the seventh annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union.
In the late 1970s, as I was beginning to research the Walker women’s lives, I made my first visit to the house. Sold after A’Lelia Walker’s death, it had been a retirement home for elderly white women since the 1930s. Even with its beauty then obscured and its furnishings meager, I still could see the lingering grandeur in the hand-painted murals and the marble stairs. When I interviewed blues legend Alberta Hunter a few years later, she told tales of weekend parties and of playing the Estey organ as she gently awakened the other guests.
Through the years I’ve watched as ownership has moved from the Companions of the Forest to Ingo and Darlene Appel and then to Harold and Helena Doley. They all have been stewards in their own caring way. For more than two decades, the Doleys have invested considerable resources and patience to restore the home and the grounds, even hosting a designer show house benefiting the United Negro College Fund in 1998.
As one of the grandest and earliest mansions built and owned by an African-American and by an American woman entrepreneur, Villa Lewaro is one of the few remaining tangible symbols of the astonishing progress made by the first generation after Emancipation. Without this evidence, our history is easily misinterpreted and dismissed. Without something to touch and see, our children and grandchildren have no way to verify the accomplishments of the ancestors.
It is vital that we work to find ways to imagine Villa Lewaro’s future so that it can continue to inspire others and to be, as Madam Walker dreamed, a monument to the brain, hustle, and energy of this remarkable woman, and a milestone in the history of a race’s advancement.
A’Lelia Bundles is Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Her website is www.aleliabundles.com.