Finding Degrees of Separation in the Sale of Irvington’s Villa Lewaro

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by Barrett Seaman – 

At first blush, the transfer of ownership of Irvington’s Villa Lewaro last year from Ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena to a foundation run by cosmetics entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis appeared to be a linear event between prominent African-Americans. But a few scraps of memorabilia unearthed in the mundane process of cleaning house after the sale have revealed fascinated threads of interconnectivity between the Doleys, the Dennises, the Village of Irvington—and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Buried in the boxes and files that inevitably accumulate over 25 years of living in a big (34-room, 20,000 sq. ft.) old house was the graduation program for the Class of 1948 at Morehouse College, the renowned traditionally black college in Atlanta, Georgia. Among the graduates listed is Harold Doley’s uncle on his mother’s side, Paul Lawrence Wall. In the opposite row of the two-column list of graduates was Wall’s classmate, one Martin Luther King Jr.

Elsewhere in the program, there is a list of award recipients from the class. Placing second in the college’s oratory competition was the same Martin Luther King Jr. One might ask who possibly could have bested the author of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in such a competition. The answer is James Nathaniel Mitchell. Ambassador Doley checked with Morehouse’s alumni relations office to find out whatever happened to King’s silver-tongued classmate but reports came back that the “office could find no institutional memory of him.” Nor could The Hudson Independent.

Placing third in the oratory competition was a young man named Romeo Horton, who turns out to be a cousin of a yet-unborn Liberian, Richelieu Dennis. Another cousin of the new owner of Villa Lewaro was Rose Dennis, who would later become Harold Doley’s liaison to the legal department of the African Development Bank, when Doley served as the bank’s U.S. Executive Director.

The circle of connectivity surrounding the villa comes closer to closing in the fall of 1965, when Rev. King, Morehouse Class of ’48, travels to Irvington to attend the first fundraiser for Abbott House, then, as now, a haven for children separated from their families. While he does not have any substantiation, Harold Doley is all but certain that King, while in the village, would have visited Villa Lewaro, then the Anne E. Poth Home for Convalescent and Aged Members of the Companions of the Forest. Not that MLK would have any connection to that cultural organization founded in the 19th century, but he would surely know that the villa was once home to Madam C.J. Walker, an icon of African-American success.

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