October 20, 2014

My Full Circle Moment with Madam C.J. Walker’s Legacy

Spotlight on National Treasures: Villa Lewaro

Left: Demetria Irwin; Right: The National Trust hosted several influential writers and bloggers from the New York City area in August 2014 to tour historic Villa Lewaro.

Black History Month was always an exciting time for me when I was in elementary school. As the child and grandchild of people who spoke extensively to me about contemporary and historical figures in the African diaspora, I was always eager to share my home-grown knowledge with classmates and teachers.

In fourth grade at (the now-closed) St. Scholastica Elementary School in Detroit, I submitted a four-panel cartoon for my Black History month assignment from my teacher. The first panel was a drawing I made of Madam Walker on her knees, head wrapped in a scarf, washing clothing in a bucket. Panel two was of Madam Walker putting together different concoctions in her home to help with hair growth/health. Panel three was her going door to door selling her wares, and panel four was my earnest attempt to draw that iconic photograph of Madam Walker in the driver’s seat of that fancy early 20th-century car (see the photo below).

My little cartoon was chosen to be featured in the Black History Month section of the school newsletter. Très bien! My original drawings (with captions) in the school newsletter marked the first time I had anything of mine published. Not bad for someone not yet in double digits. (The original newsletter survives, but between me living in several cities and states and my parents moving, I do not know where this precious artifact is precisely.)

The iconic photograph of Madam Walker driving three of her friends in an early automobile.

I chose Madam Walker as the subject of my project because she felt tangible to me. Of course I had read about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and even Rosa Parks, but there was something about the story of Madam Walker -- starting from the bottom and elevating herself to a socio-economic realm unheard of for little black girls born to former slaves -- that touched me.

Fast forward about 25 years, and there I stood in Madam Walker’s glorious and meticulously maintained abode, Villa Lewaro. I was able to actually touch the tangible fruits of her labor in the form of floors, fixtures, and adornments.

As a full-time professional writer, I was invited to Villa Lewaro for a press tour. Talk about a full circle moment. My first published work (well before I had an inkling of having a writing career) was about Madam Walker, and there I was a full-fledged adult taking in the glory of that same amazing American entrepreneur.

I was in awe of Madam Walker’s life as a child, but as an adult, I am better able to comprehend the tremendous hurdles she overcame, and I am humbled and inspired by her story.

The elegant and luxurious Villa Lewaro is a powerful testament to Madam Walker’s fortitude and business acumen.

Here was a woman, a black woman no less, making tremendous strides in business in a time before women even had the right to vote. The elegant and luxurious Villa Lewaro began construction in 1917, three years before the 19th constitutional amendment was ratified, which guaranteed women’s right to vote. That is a powerful testament to Madam Walker’s fortitude and business acumen. She is a treasure of not only black history, but American history as a whole.

The mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to save this nation’s historic places is an honorable one. The quest to preserve the spirit and bricks of Villa Lewaro is very much in line with that honorable mention. Madam Walker’s legacy is more than worthy of acknowledgment.

Demetria Irwin is a New York City-based (Detroit born) freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.

By: Demetria Irwin

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