February 11, 2021 Organ Note

An Audacious Woman of Unbounded Achievement and an Estey Organ

Music Room of Villa Lewaro

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

So said Madame C. J. Walker, in 1912, addressing the National Negro Business League (NNBL). This was modest. It does not begin to capture Walker’s audacity of spirit and scope of achievement.

Madame C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove 1867-1919) was born on a Louisiana Delta plantation. Her parents had been slaves. She was orphaned at age 7.  The following decades were a bleak struggle. She worked as a field hand, a domestic servant, a cook, a laundress, barely earning a dollar a day. In 1905, at the age of 37, she started a business, manufacturing and selling self-care and cosmetic products meeting the needs of Black women. By 1912, when she addressed the NNBL, she had several thousand trained and well-paid women sales agents across the US and a mail-order business. As she said, “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself. I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”

In 1916, Walker moved to a New York City townhouse in Harlem. She became a political and social activist, devoted to advancing the lives of Black American women and men. She funded anti-lynching programs of the NAACP, initiatives of the National Association of Colored Women, and educational institutions and community centers for Black women and men. A former choir member, she loved music. She became a patron of Black musicians. She was a friend of Enrico Caruso.

In 1917, Walker built an elegant home, Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York. The architect was Vertner Tandy, the first Black registered architect in New York. Throughout the construction and furnishing of the house, Walker and Tandy patronized firms owned by or sympathetic to Black communities. She ordered a ten rank, two manual pipe organ from the Estey Organ Company, a Vermont firm specializing in residential organs.

Jacob Estey, the founder of Estey Organ company, was an important benefactor of higher education for freedwomen of the South. Estey Hall at Shaw University in Raleigh, South Carolina is named in his honor. It is the first building ever erected for the education of Black American women. Shaw University had been founded in 1865 to educate freed Black men. Estey’s gift in 1873 had allowed the university to expand to freed women.

Jacob Estey’s support of Black women’s education must have touched a deep chord in Walker. She herself had received only 3 months of education in a children’s Sunday school program.

Walker lived in Villa Lewaro only briefly. She died in 1919. Her funeral was held in the music room. The organist was Melville Charlton (1880-1973), the first Black organist admitted to the American Guild of Organists. The soloist was the baritone Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). A composer, arranger and professional singer, Burleigh introduced Black music to white audiences and musicians across the US and Europe, including to the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

In 1918, when Walker placed her order for an organ, Jacob Estey was dead. His grandsons were willing to accept Walker’s order. But they refused to stamp the exterior of the organ crates shipped to her home with their company name. They did not want the public to know that they were providing an organ to a Black customer.

When we gather in Christ Church, our organ will be capable of playing the music that Charlton and Burleigh performed in the music room of Madame Walker. We can rejoice that our musical

Read past organ notes here.