Madam C.J. Walker, Reverend Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, the American Women’s Heritage Society, Queen Nzinga and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) are just a few of the historical figures and organizations explored during Toyota’s Let’s Go Places Black History Month tour. Over the course of four days, writers had the opportunity to visit historical landmarks like Villa Lewaro, Madam C.J. Walker’s restored historic residence. Born Sarah Breedlove in the Louisiana Delta, Walker, the nation’s first self-made woman millionaire made her fortune by developing and selling black hair care products to the African American community.
Built in 1917, Walker’s summer residence, Villa Lewaro, was the intellectual gathering place for notable leaders of the Harlem Renaissance including James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. Located in Irvington, NY, her neighbors included real estate mogul John Jacob Astor and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. Walker commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York State’s first registered black architect to design the summer home. Vertner who is also a founder of Alphi Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., modeled the home after an Italian villa. Upon her death in 1919, Walker left the home to her daughter A’Leila with the stipulation that after her daughter’s death the three-story, stucco villa should go to the NAACP. The NAACP quickly sold the property for financial solvency and it became a retirement home for forty years.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 due to it’s architectural significance, Villa Lewaro showcases the beauty, architectural integrity and great sense of style held by America’s first, self-made woman millionaire, who valued the work and expertise of other African-Americans like Tandy. It is befitting Ambassador Harold Doley, Jr. and his wife Helena are the current owners of the property and have lived at Villa Lewaro for 24 years. Doley is the founder of Doley Securities, LLC, the oldest African American owned investment banking firm in the nation. In 1981 he was named the Founding Director of the Minerals Management Service of the United States Department of Interior. Under Doley, Minerals Management became the second largest income source to the United States Government. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan appointed Doley as the American Ambassador to the Ivory Coast. He was also named Executive Director of the African Development Bank, a multi-lateral development institution and a sister institution of the World Bank. Serving as Executive Director, Doley increased the AFDB’s capital by more than 300 percent. Upon his return to the United States in 1985, Doley continued his African development work by founding the U.S. – Africa Chamber of Commerce to increase trade between African nations and the United States.
At the age of 21, Ambassador Doley visited Villa Lewaro while training in investment banking on Wall Street, and decided then he would one day live here. “I took the train here and thought one day I want to own this home. It’s important that this home be in black hands and fulfill Madam’s goals,” says Doley. The Doleys, who have lived at Villa Lewaro for 24 years and worked closely with the National Trust to honor the architectural integrity of the estate, in addition to the legacy of Madam C. J. Walker, have placed Villa Lewaro on the market leading many to wonder what will become of the designated landmark. Brent Leggs, Senior Field Officer for the National Historic Preservation Trust says, “Our intent is to protect the property with the strongest legal tool possible which is a preservation easement.” He adds, “They [The Doleys] have lived here for 24 years and beautifully restored the property so they will be making the easement donation to the national trust and the easement endowment so we can monitor this easement in perpetuity.” According to Leggs, the easement is expected to be in place by March of 2017.
This article was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual. It is the first of a series of articles related to the Toyota Let’s Go Places Black History Month Tour. The next article in the series will feature Mother Bethel AME.