Villa Lewaro is an extravagantly beautiful 20,000 square foot, 34-room mansion with herringbone and marble floors located in Irvington, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. Deemed an official national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it was pioneering entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker’s “Dream of Dreams.” It’s an edifice that till this day stands tall to inspire her people to greatness, and is said to be the grandest mansion built by an African-American prior to 1960.
Amiably known as Madam C.J. Walker, the famed millionaire was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, only two years after slavery ended. While her parents and older siblings were born enslaved, Breedlove vowed to escape plantation life working as a washerwoman in her youth. She transcended her circumstances when she created hair care products initially made to combat her own hair loss, which proved to be beneficial to African-American women.
A shrewd businesswoman, Walker amassed her multimillion-dollar beauty and hair care fortune during the Jim Crow era, a time drenched in racial segregation and inequality. Her unwavering faith and belief in herself enabled Walker’s door-to-door business to become an international success allowing her to become the first noted American female self-made millionaire. She was indeed the Oprah Winfrey of her time.
When Walker first built Villa Lewaro in 1918, her credo became “cabin to mansion,” to share with others where her humble beginnings had taken her. Now, nearly 100 years later, the future of Walker’s beloved Villa Lewaro is uncertain. Brent Leggs, senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is working diligently to protect this great American landmark that’s had immense meaning for so many people for generations.
In a passionate voice, Leggs says, “Historic preservation is a powerful tool to help protect our shared cultural identity and heritage. By preserving Villa Lewaro, one of the most important historic sites in African-American and women’s history, Madam Walker’s remarkable life once lived becomes real. Her life lessons are a road map to success.”
Leggs always loved old buildings, art, architecture, history and real estate development, “but never once did I imagine that these pieces of my personality would one day coalesce into a career in the field of historic preservation,” he candidly explains. After reading the Booker T. Washington biography Up from Slavery, Leggs was inspired by the Black leader’s commitment to uplift the African-American community.
Moved by Madam C Walker’s momentous story, he’s now rallying to save such a huge piece of her legacy, putting out the call to preserve such a rich part of America’s history.
“Villa Lewaro’s story is a symbol of self-determination, the resilient and visionary power of Black women, and the ability of the Black community to uplift itself through commerce, innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Leggs. “Villa Lewaro is more than a well-designed old building—its protection and preservation is a fitting tribute to America’s first, self-made woman millionaire.”
By the time of Madam C.J. Walker’s death in 1919, she’d trained more than 23,000 sales agents and beauty specialists not only in the United States, but in the Caribbean and South America. Her vision was vast, and she believed that upward mobility was possible by putting actions behind your dreams.
“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity,” Madam Walker once remarked. “But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them. There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
It is Leggs’s experience that the preservation of historic African-American sites often happens on an informal basis. “Each time someone gives to a church’s building fund, that person is helping to rebuild historic fabric,” he says. “When relatives gather at the family farm for a reunion or to celebrate Juneteenth, they are honoring their past.
“These places anchor our community and become real community assets,” he continues. “Today and into the future, formally preserving African-American history is a shared responsibility, and requires increased public participation and investment.”
As the sankofa bird symbolizes reflecting on our past to build a bright future, Madam Walker’s rags-to-riches story proves that the human spirit can prevail through any obstacle, and if determined, can achieve the impossible.
To learn more about Black historical preservation, please read the National Trust publication Preserving African-American Historic Places.