Olivia Lee Dilworth Stanford Biography
First in Family to Graduate from College, Built Own Business in New York
Businesswoman, pianist, and community leader
Olivia Stanford packed many full and successful lives within the almost ninety years she lived. First known nationally as the co-owner of the largest black beauty salon in the United States, she was also an accomplished musician and producer of musical performances. In addition to raising her three children and creating elegant homes in New York, St. Thomas, Portugal, Washington, D.C., and Florida, Stanford continued to be active in business, political work, and charity fundraising throughout her life. Growing up as the only child in a house full of doting adults, Stanford learned confidence and social skills that would allow her to rise above the racism and sexism of the society around her and feel at home anywhere in the world.
Stanford was born in the small town of Suffolk, Virginia, on December 10, 1914. Her grandparents were Lemuel and Lizzie Bynum, whose parents had once been slaves in North Carolina. Lemuel Bynum worked as a horse driver. He met Lizzie Roberts, a baby nurse, when she offered him water as she drove his wagon past the home where she worked. When they married, they moved into a house Lemuel had built in Suffolk on a piece of land he had bought for $75. The Bynums had three daughters, Lessie Mae, Maude, and Grace. Rather than moving out when they got married, each of the Bynum girls brought her husband to live in the family home. Into this large family of sisters and brothers-in-law, only one child was born, a baby girl named Olivia Lee, daughter of Grace Bynum and her husband George Dilworth.
During the first half of the twentieth century, limited employment opportunities existed for African-American women. One kind of work that was available was that of service in the homes of wealthy white families. As her mother had been, Grace Dilworth was a skilled baby nurse, and she traveled up and down the East Coast working as a nurse for white families with new babies. This meant frequently leaving her own daughter behind in the care of her sisters and their husbands. Since Grace was estranged from George Dilworth, who died in 1944, her loving extended family was extremely important in young Olivia's life.
First in Family to Graduate
Though she was the pampered darling of her aunts and uncles, Stanford was also a hard worker. Both of her uncles had their own businesses, one a tailor and dry cleaner and the other a funeral director. By age thirteen, young Olivia had learned to drive the business vehicles, and by fourteen she was helping her uncle prepare bodies for burial in his funeral home. Perhaps this early work inspired her future interest in business. Stanford was also a good student and especially liked her biology classes. Her family had great confidence in her abilities, and they both encouraged and helped Stanford to attend a local college, Virginia Normal Institute, later renamed Virginia State University.
While studying physical education in college during the mid-1930s she met and married her first husband, Edward Glass Trigg, DVM, a professor of veterinary medicine and bacteriology at Virginia Normal Institute. The couple had one child, named Madalin, but the marriage ended a few years later. After her divorce, Stanford, always independent and adventurous, decided to make a big change in her life. Remembering stories her mother had told of her travels to New York City, she decided to move north, leaving Madalin with her family in Suffolk.
World War II had begun, and Stanford contributed to the war effort by working for the United Service Organization (USO). Founded in 1941, the USO is a national organization that allows non-military citizens to provide moral support and recreation for soldiers. Stanford had learned to play the piano when she was a child and had continued to love the instrument, teaching herself new songs and styles as she grew up. While in New York during the early years of the war, she frequently entertained soldiers, playing in USO shows. She was married again to a serviceman named Larry Clarke, but the marriage did not last long.
Built Own Business in New York
During the mid-1940s, Stanford met Rose Morgan, a beautician and businesswoman, who had moved to New York from Chicago. Both Stanford and Morgan had grown up in families of entrepreneurs, and both possessed a strong confidence that they too could succeed in business. Together they opened a beauty salon, relying on Morgan's skill as a beautician and Stanford's knowledge of business. Within a few years, the Rose-Meta House of Beauty in Harlem had become the largest black beauty salon in the United States. Stanford and Morgan not only created their own line of beauty products, especially designed for African-American women, but they expanded the business into several shops around the city, including one called Olivia's House of Beauty.
One of the revolutionary ideas behind Rose-Meta's success was Morgan and Stanford's belief that African features, such as kinky hair and dark skin, were not defects to be covered up or changed. They celebrated the beauty of these features and sold products to enhance them. Along with hairstyling and cosmetics, their salons offered massage and health advice, and there was a waiting list of black women who wanted their services.
In 1949 Stanford, then called Olivia Clarke, met a New York real estate developer named Donald Stanford. Both successful business people with imagination and an adventurous spirit, they found they had much in common. In August of the same year, they married. By 1954 they had two small sons, Donald Lemuel and Bruce, and had built their own house in Croton-on-Hudson, a Westchester county suburb of New York City.
Though they both had flourishing businesses and full lives in New York, the Stanfords began to think of moving. They were angered and frustrated by the racism and segregation they saw everywhere in the United States during the 1950s, and they were concerned about raising their children in this atmosphere. Donald had heard about investment opportunities in the Caribbean. His own parents had come from Jamaica, so he was familiar with Caribbean culture. Though many European cultures have colonized the nations of the Caribbean, most have large black populations. The Stanfords began to think that raising their children in a place where black people were in the majority would be a good idea.
Relocated to the Virgin Islands
In 1954 the family took an exploratory trip to Haiti, an island nation in the Caribbean. The unstable political situation in Haiti convinced them to leave and head for St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Stanfords fell in love with St. Thomas, so they went back to New York, sold all their businesses and properties, and moved to the Caribbean. Olivia's first daughter Madalin chose to remain on the mainland, however, and follow in her mother's footsteps at Virginia State University.
In the budding economy of St. Thomas, Donald Stanford found ample opportunities for real estate development. Working side by side, Donald and Olivia Stanford leased quantities of unused U.S. government property and started many businesses, including the first gift shop, bar, and restaurant in the St. Thomas airport. Olivia threw herself into volunteer community work as well and began to produce musical shows to raise money for the island school. In the early 1960s, they built their dream home, a sprawling house on a mountain overlooking the St. Thomas harbor. They named their new home Kyalami, a Zulu word meaning "Our Loving Home."
In 1963, Donald Stanford had a mild heart attack. This health crisis prompted the hardworking Stanfords to think about slowing down. They retired from their many businesses, though they continued to hold leases and collect rents on much of the St. Thomas property. They took a vacation to Portugal and loved the relaxed beauty of that country so much that they packed up the boys and moved to Lisbon for the next two years. While the Stanfords relaxed, their sons attended the French school in Lisbon. As the boys grew older, however, their parents decided that, in order to ensure the best possible education for them, they would move back to the United States. In 1966, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where young Donald and Bruce would attend an alternative school.
Remained Active Late in Life
While in Washington, Olivia Stanford found more work to do. In response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Congress had passed many new civil rights laws. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had set up a government commission to enforce these newly enacted laws. This organization, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), was headed by Clifford Alexander, an African-American lawyer from New York who had held various government positions.
Olivia Stanford felt that the Commission's work was important enough to draw her out of retirement. She went to work for Alexander in the public relations and public awareness department of the EEOC. As part of her work, she produced a series of Public Service Announcement films informing the public about how the new civil rights laws would affect their lives. Her history in producing and performing in musical shows helped her feel comfortable working with such celebrities as Anthony Quinn and Billy Dee Williams, who starred in the government films.
In 1971, with her children on their own or in college, Stanford and her husband returned to their mountain-top home in St. Thomas. Once again, she became immersed in community events, and once again she took a leadership role. Donald Stanford had long been active in the Rotary Club, a social service club for businessmen. The first Rotary Club was formed in Chicago in 1905 as a network for businessmen who wanted to make a contribution to their communities. By the early 2000s, there were over 31,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries.
Since women were not originally permitted in Rotary, wives and other women who wished to support the community service work of the Rotarians formed separate organizations, called the Inner Wheel. There was no Inner Wheel on St. Thomas, so Olivia Stanford started one. Among its other projects, the St. Thomas Inner Wheel opened and operated a gift shop in the island hospital to raise funds for community services. Next, Stanford helped to found an organization called Partners for Health, which raised money to buy sorely needed equipment for the island hospital. Once again, Olivia Stanford began organizing musical shows and film festivals to raise money for her cause, calling on the celebrities she had met while working for the EEOC to come to St. Thomas and help.
In 1990, Partners for Health held a formal ball to honor Olivia Stanford for all her work in the community. The organization she had founded honored her with the title, "My Fair Lady of St. Thomas."
In 1991, the Stanfords decided to move to Florida in order to have better access to health care. Though she had several different homes in Florida, Olivia Stanford took her Steinway baby grand piano with her everywhere she moved, always happy playing music for her friends, her family, and her church. Her lively spirit attracted people to her and she made friends wherever she went.
Donald Stanford died in 1996, and in 1998 Olivia moved in with her youngest son for a short time. However, her independent spirit soon prompted her to look for her own place, and she moved again. She spent the last two years of her life designing and decorating yet another dream home, a condominium in St. Augustine, Florida. She died of pneumonia in 2004, having been active up to the end of her life. At the celebration of her life in the fall of 2004, one of her granddaughters lovingly described the gracious and irrepressible Olivia Stanford as someone who "always had something on her to-do list, was always looking for someone else to meet, and was still looking for the perfect pair of shoes."
The African, January 1948.
Ebony, May 1946.
New York Age, May 28, 1949.
Jet, March 29, 2004.
"A Brief History," Rotary International, www.rotary.com (November 8, 2004).
"Early Rotary Issues Regarding Women and Rotary," Rotary's Global History Fellowship, www.rotaryhistoryfellowship.org/women/issues-early/innerwheel/begin.htm (November 8, 2004).
"Rose Morgan," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=167&category=styleMakers (November 8, 2004).
"Obituary: Olivia Dilworth Stanford," Virgin Islands Daily News, www.virginislandsdailynews.com/index.pl/article_obituaries?id=4066814 (September 28, 2004).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Donald Stanford on November 5, 2004. Additional help was provided by Madalin Price and Inner Wheel of St. Thomas.
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