During the week of October 19, 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation featured Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, on all its social media platforms. This piece that I wrote for the Trust’s Preservation Blog also appeared on Huffington Post and Jet.com
Inside Villa Lewaro, Madam C. J. Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, NY mansion (David Bohl/Historic New England)
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 pride and magic the ancestors must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of the majestic portico to the balustrades of the grand terrace, the original stucco façade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the laundress-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.
Villa Lewaro 1920s
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 black 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.
Villa Lewaro Aerial (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
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 1867 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 washerwoman, 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 strategy to claim and influence history’s narrative.
Invitation to the August 1918 Villa Lewaro gathering honoring Emmett Scott (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
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 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 eighth annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union.
A’Lelia Walker in Villa Lewaro’s Music Room (Courtesy of Madam Walker Familly Archives)
In the late 1970s, as I was beginning to research the Walker women’s lives, I made my first visit to the house. Sold soon after A’Lelia Walker’s death in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, it had been a retirement home for elderly white women for several decades. 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 elegant 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 benefitting the United Negro College Fund in 1998.
In May 1922 the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund hosted a gathering of preservationists, developers and entrepreneurs to discuss the future of Villa Lewaro.
Among the earliest and most notable 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 generation born just after Emancipation and the Civil War. Without this evidence, our history can be intentionally misinterpreted and easily dismissed. Having walls to touch and doors to open helps our children and grandchildren verify the ancestors’ accomplishments and connect themselves to their rich heritage.
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 brains, hustle and energy…and a mile stone in the history of a race’s advancement.”
To support these efforts, please click here to sign the pledge to preserve Madam Walker’s Villa Lewaro and here to make a monetary donation through the National Trust.
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
It has to be more than coincidence that so many clues and links to my family history just keep being placed in my path.
Last Saturday I was at a Columbia University alumni luncheon, leaving late, as usual, because I had lingered to talk to just one more person! I found myself in line at the coat check behind three people who seemed to be together. As it turned out the group included a very stylish older black woman and a younger couple who were dressed in matching navy blue jackets with white piping. And as black people usually do when we’ve just spent the day in a setting where we are in the distinct minority, we exchanged pleasantries while waiting for our belongings.
Obiora Anekwe, Yvonne Foster Southerland, A’Lelia Bundles and Alexis Southerland Anekwe at Columbia University
Because they seemed friendly, I was inclined to keep the conversation going. “Were you here for the luncheon?” I asked.
“We were here for the alumni book fair,” the man answered.
As we shook hands and exchanged names, the older woman—who by now I’d surmised was the mother of the younger woman and the mother-in-law of the man—said, “A’Lelia Bundles? You’re kidding!”
“No really!” I smiled.
“I knew your mother,” she said. “And your Uncle Walker!”
Walker Perry circa 1948 at Lincoln University
So what are the chances of this? Coincidence? Serendipity? Or the universe working its magic? Yvonne Foster Southerland indeed had known my mother’s older brother, Walker Perry, who was born in 1926, and who was a student at Lincoln University from 1944 to 1948, when her father Dr. Laurence Foster, was chairman of the sociology department. I learned that Yvonne, who was born in 1937, and her younger brother considered my uncle as their “adopted big brother.”
A few days ago when I received a copy of her book, Legacy: Seven Generations of a Family, I read the following paragraphs:
“Never was there a student at Lincoln who was as close to us as he was. He became involved in every aspect of our daily lives,
Legacy by Yvonne Foster Southerland
having dinner with us several times a week, often driving our parents to appointments and taking us on Saturday mornings to Oxford for ice cream and comics.”
“When our weekly pay for household chores was insufficient (and it usually was due to fines imposed by our father), Walker would take pity on us and chip in for the ice cream and comics.”
A’Lelia Mae Perry at Howard University 1949 (from aleliabundles.com)
About my mother, she wrote: “He had a very charming sister named A’Lelia Perry, who was a student at Howard University. When she came to Lincoln for dances, we were thrilled that she stayed with us, as we had the same affection for her as we had for Walker.”
“When Walker graduated from Lincoln in May of 1948, his father Marion Perry stayed with us, so we became close to his whole family.”
My uncle’s graduation marked the third generation of Perry men to attend Lincoln. My great-grandfather, Marion R. Perry, Sr, was valedictorian of his class in 1883. His sons, Marion, Jr. and Henderson, graduated in 1912.
Yvonne told me of subsequent reunions and visits through the years and of how she still cherishes the hostess gifts my late mother always sent after her visits.
A’Lelia Mae Perry, Marion R. Perry and Walker Perry at Lincoln University graduation 1948
And then there was the bonus of meeting Yvonne’s accomplished daughter Alexis Southerland Anekwe, a graduate of Spelman and of Union Theological Seminary, and her son-in-law Obiora Anekwe, an educator and artist, who received his masters in bioethics from Columbia in 2014.
He had been at the Columbia Alumni Book Fair that day to present Ancestral Voices Rising Up: A Collage Series on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a book of art and essays chronicling the tragedy of one of the most unethical medical experiments ever conducted in America. His work is stunning.
I am thankful for this serendipitous encounter and, once again, can’t help but think that the ancestors are guiding my steps.
William Hendry, who was born in Frederick, VA circa 1760, prepared this will in 1838.
In 1838 when William Hendry of Greene County, Tennessee drew up his will, he included this passage: “It is my will and desire that Nancy McEfee have $300 in place of a Mulatto girl named Delfey [that] I once gave her as a legatee and McEfee gave her back and gave her mother a bill of sale for the girl that she might have [a] chance to free her for which above named $300 McEfee holds some obligation to me to be paid at my death.” [McEfee sometimes appears as McFee.]
I’ve written about Delfey (also spelled Delphia) before. She’s one of my maternal great-great-great-grandmothers and was born about 1808. By all accounts, she is the daughter of William Hendry (b. 1760) and Rose (b. 1790), a woman he owned. Because Delphia was his daughter–and because he seems to have promised Rose that he would eventually free Delphia–he made arrangements in this document and in others to carry out that commitment.
William Hendry values “the Mulatto girl named Delfey,” who is his daughter, at $300.
Seeing the $300 valuation made me curious. What would the equivalent amount be today?
It turns out that a valuation can be interpreted in many ways. MeasuringWorth.com, a website that strives to provide accurate historical data on economic aggregates, distinguishes three categories: 1) the cost or value of a commodity 2) income or wealth and 3) a project (an investment or the construction of something like a canal or cable network).
$7,750.00 using the Consumer Price Index
$6,620.00 using the GDP deflator
$68,800.00 using the unskilled wage
$144,000.00 using the Production Worker Compensation
$161,000.00 using the nominal GDP per capita
$3,150,000.00 using the relative share of GDP*
William Hendry’s will was written on June 24, 1838, eight days before he died.
After divvying up his assets to his sons and various other relatives in amounts of $50 for some and $150 for others, Hendry also wrote: “It is my will and desire that the rest of my estate after Sally McCray’s heirs have one hundred and fifty dollars as above named and Nancy McEfee gets her above named $300, which I promised McEfee to leave to her at my death in place of Delfey, the Mulatto girl and for selling Delfey to Rose as she might have a chance to free her…”
Just to put things in perspective: In 1806, two years before Delphia was born, William Hendry sold 45 acres of land in Washington County, Tennessee to a man named David Brown for $150.00. In 1808, a man named Stephen Kirk puchased 202 1/2 acres in Baldwin County, Georgia for $450.00.
So many questions. What a conundrum to own one of your children and to place a value on her as you would a plow or a horse and yet to have bucked custom and provided a legal path for her freedom. What convoluted calculations determined that this child was worth $300 while the bequest to your sons was $50? Who was Nancy McEfee and why was Delphia conveyed to her and then returned?
As I have learned through the years from other Hendry descendants and relatives who have generously shared documents and information, there is much more to Delphia Hendry’s story.
A few months ago, Robert Purvis, reached out to me through Ancestry.com. He and I share William Hendry as a great-great-great-great-grandfather. Robert, who is a descendant of one of Hendry’s sons, directed me to a page on the Race and Slavery Petitions Project website that included a petition filed on October 19, 1833 (five years before William Hendry’s will) for Delphia’s freedom.
Greene County, Tennessee–located in the southeastern corner of the state near North Carolina–in 1888.
Greene County Tennessee Petition 11483304 read: Twenty-five residents of Greene County represent that William Hendrey gave John McFee, his son-in-law, “a Cartin Calored Gal by the name of Delfe” in 1827 and that said McFee “Sold hur to hur mother a black woman for the Sum of thre hundred Dollars”; McFee “gave hur mother a firm bil of Sail for Delfy and She was to Set hur free.” The petitioners point out that said mother cannot emancipate her daughter owing “to an act of the General assembly prohibiting the amancipation of Slaves.” The petitioners therefore pray “your Honourable body to pass a law authorising the County Court of Green to emancipate the sd Delfey.” They further avow that Delfy “is a garl of good Charactor.”
I knew from the emancipation certificate, which my grandfather cherished and had given to me almost forty years ago, that Delphia eventually was freed in 1841, more than two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. But as the 1833 petition shows, there was incredible resistance to her emancipation.
Delphia Hendry carried this document during the 1840s and 1850s to validate her freedom.
The journey to freedom seems to have been formally set in motion in 1827 when Delphia was 19 years old. It was then, as the 1833 petition says, that William Hendry, gave Delphia (“a certain colored gal by the name of Delfe”) to his son-in-law, John McEfee, husband of Nancy Hendry McEfee, one of his white daughters. McEfee, in turn sold Delphia to her mother, Rose, for $300. McEfee, according to the 1833 petition, then gave Rose “a firm bill of sale” that was to allow Rose to set her daughter free. But because Tennessee had a law “prohibiting the emancipation of slaves,” Rose was prevented from freeing her child.
Delphia Hendry’s Emancipation Certificate finally was issued in 1839 after her father’s death.
Five more years were to pass after Rose’s purchase of Delphia with Delphia still not legally freed. In the 1833 document, 25 residents of Greene County Tennessee signed a petition requesting that the county authorize a law to emancipate Delphia. Even though that law was passed, it would take another nine years before Delphia would be emancipated.
More answers simply bring more questions. How in the world did Rose get $300 in 1827? Or was the $300 a credit Rose somehow had accumulated toward some debt Hendry owed her? Did Hendry give his mulatto daughter to his white daughter and son-in-law to settle a debt? Did his daughter, Nancy Hendry McEfee, urge him to free Delphia, who was her half-sister? Or did Nancy “give her back” because there was some kind of sibling rivalry? Who were the 25–presumably white and free–citizens who vouched for Rose and Delphia?
Delphia Hendry’s great-grandson, Marion R. Perry, preserved her Emancipation Certificate and passed it on to his granddaughter. (www.aleliabundles.com)
I do not have any images of Delphia, only this emancipation document that my grandfather, Marion R. Perry–Delphia’s great-grandson–had preserved and laminated many decades ago.
This photo is of her son, Henderson B. Robinson, my maternal great-great-grandfather, who was born in 1824 when Delphia was 16.
Delphia’s son, Henderson B. Robinson, was elected sheriff of Phillips County, Arkansas during Reconstruction. When he and other black elected officials were pushed from office in 1878, he moved his family to Oberlin, Ohio.
He later would move to Ripley, Ohio (a major stop on the Underground Railroad), to Memphis (where my grandfather said he “worked with Robert Church“–Mary Church Terrell’s father–though I have no details of that) and then to Helena, Arkansas where he would become superintendent of prisons and sheriff of Phillips County, and a member of the Arkansas state legislature during Reconstruction. The home he owned there is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1872 he purchased a 3600 acre farm. After white “Redeemers” pushed African Americans out of elected office in Arkansas and throughout the South in 1878, he moved his family to Ohio and enrolled his children at Oberlin.
In 1880, Henderson Robinson was one of twelve Arkansas delegates to the Republican National Convention. He and 306 of the 756 supported former president Ulysses S. Grant, though James Garfield won the nomination. The Arkansas Democratic Party of that era was composed of men who had ousted black legislators and disenfranchised black voters.
I continue to ponder, to search and to fill in the blanks, not so much about Delphia and Rose and their relationship with William Hendry–which I will never really know–but about how Delphia prepared her son, Henderson, for the world that lay ahead and how Henderson and his wife, Adelaide, taught their children–including my great-grandmother, Ida Robinson Perry–to navigate America during the late 19th century.
H. B. Robinson was a delegate to the 1880 Republican National Convention supporting Ulysses S. Grant.
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a biography of one of her great-great-grandmothers that now is in production as an eight-part Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer. She is at work on her fifth book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, a biography of her great-grandmother. Click here to learn more about Madam Walker.
*Breaking it down in even more detail and comparing the value as a commodity and as income or wealth:COMMODITYThe real price of that commodity is $7,750The labor value of that commodity is $68,800 for an unskilled worker and $144,000 for a production workerThe income value of that commodity is $161,000INCOME OR WEALTH Historic standard of living = $7,750 Economic status = $161,000 Econonic power = $3,150,000