During their meeting on Dec. 20, the Irvington Village Board unanimously passed resolutions supporting two Main Street sites honoring Black residents in the village’s history.
The first resolution authorized an inter-municipal agreement with the Irvington School District regarding the maintenance of a monument honoring enslaved Africans that will be placed on district property between village hall and the Main Street School.
The second resolution named the plaza in front of village hall after the most famous African-American in the history of the Irvington, Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.
The bas relief sculpture on a granite slab, now being made by Black artist Vinnie Bagwell of Yonkers, will depict an enslaved African girl with enslaved adult field workers carved into her garment. They represent people who worked the tenant farms that were part of the colonial-era Philipsburg Manor, which extended north from Yonkers along the Hudson for 22 miles, and included what is now Irvington.
The initiative to create the sculpture began with “Commemorate,” a group of Irvington residents formed in 2019 to shed light on the history of enslavement in the village. Commemorate members Sarah Cox and Cathy Sears found records proving that slavery existed among prominent local families such as the Buckhouts, Dearmans, Dutchers, and Eckars — names now enshrined on downtown streets.
Cox and Sears gave talks about their findings and published a story about them in the Winter 2019 issue of Irvington Historical Society’s newsletter “The Roost.”
That information led to the village board’s reluctance to approve a proposal from a different organization, Irvington Landmark Preservation, Inc., that wanted to embed plaques in the sidewalks along Main Street with biographical information about the families the side streets were named after. The proposed text for the plaques did not mention enslavement. After discussion about whether, and how, to correct that omission, the project did not move forward.
The idea for the statue was sparked by the fact that Bagwell has been in the process of creating an outdoor sculptural installation near he Philipse family’s mansion, Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, depicting enslaved Africans.
Commemorate offered to raise private funds for a similar memorial sculpture for Main Street, preferably in front of village Hall. The village board could not reach consensus about locating a memorial at that plaza. The board did, however, agree to pay for an educational site across from the Cosmopolitan Building on South Buckhout Street, where a burial ground for enslaved Africans was once located.
Commemorate then turned to the Irvington School District, which agreed to let the group install the memorial on the southwest corner of Main Street School’s property, adjacent to the Rip Van Winkle statue. The Village agreed to maintain the sculpture.
Though not enslaved herself, Walker’s parents had been. Her 1918 mansion on North Broadway, Villa Lewaro, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is currently owned by a nonprofit entity, the Madam C.J. Walker Institute for Women Entrepreneurs of Color, founded by another self-made Black beauty industry millionaire, Richelieu Dennis.
During the meeting on Dec. 20, Mayor Brian Smith said the area in front of village hall had become a magnet for activity since it was renovated in 2018, and then made available for rallies and performances.
“My thought process was that we haven’t been able to name anything after Madam C.J. Walker,” he explained. “You look at someone like Madam C.J. Walker and it’s not just women’s history in the U.S., or Black history. It’s the history of the United States. She wanted to have a home where the millionaires were, and she pulled it off. She’s been an inspiration to millions of people, including the new owner of Villa Lewaro.”
Village Trustee Arlene Burgos, a member of the Irvington School District’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and one of the organizers of Black Lives Matter rallies held at the plaza, said, “I think Vinnie’s statue will bring a lot of attention to Main Street, and having Madam C.J. Walker Plaza will really be a nice complement to the history, because Madam C.J. Walker was the daughter of enslaved people.”
Burgos added that the two commemorations were “basically humanizing people who have been ignored, and celebrating someone who had accomplished so much… it really is a universal story and something we should be proud of.”