Maggie Lena Walker
Walker, Maggie Lena 1867(?) –1934
Maggie Lena Walker 1867(?) –1934
Bank president, businesswoman, community leader
Maggie Lena Walker, probably the first female bank president in the United States, became one of America’s wealthiest black women in the years before her death in 1934. Besides being a bank president, Walker was also the linchpin of a fraternal organization with 100,000 members, and a natural leader who touched the life of her community at virtually every level. The daughter of a washerwoman, she summed up her early years with this often-quoted remark: “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.” Thus hers was a true rags-to-riches story, but Maggie Walker aimed less at personal wealth than at the aid and enrichment of black people and women in her home city and lifetime residence of Richmond, Virginia.
Maggie Walker was born on July 15, 1867 (some sources suggest that she may have been born several years earlier than that). Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, worked on the estate of a woman named Elizabeth Van Lew who had spied for the Union during the Civil War; her father, Eccles Cuthbert, was an Irish-born newspaperman. Her mother married William Mitchell, the Van Lew butler, but Mitchell was drowned in the James River in 1876, likely murdered. Maggie’s mother took in laundry to support her family, sending her young daughter to pick up and deliver the clothes.
The beneficiary of an excellent education in Richmond’s public schools, Maggie Mitchell graduated from the Normal School (a teachers’ high school) in 1883. Her graduating class of ten carried out what historian Wendell Dabney later called “the first school strike of Negroes in America”; they refused to receive their diplomas in the church to which black students had traditionally been banished on graduation day, demanding admittance to, and desegregation of, the school auditorium instead. After much controversy they were admitted to the auditorium after they refused balcony seating, but were seated separately from whites. Their protest received wide coverage in the nation’s young but growing black press.
She became a teacher, but cut her career short when she married Armstead Walker, a contractor and mail carrier, in 1886. Walker bore three sons (one died in infancy), and the couple adopted a daughter. During her school years, she had joined one of the many community organizations that flourished in Richmond’s black community—the Independent Order of St. Luke. In so doing, she found her life’s work. This order was a sort of mutual-aid society that offered life insurance, burial benefits, and care for the sick and destitute; such organizations were of crucial importance in southern urban black communities from after the Civil War until well into the twentieth century. Walker rose rapidly through the ranks, in 1895 offering a resolution for the founding of what was to become a highly effective and entirely female-run juvenile division. She won election to several secretarial posts.
Born July 15, 1867 to mother Elizabeth Draper and father Eccles Cuthbert; named Maggie Mitchell after her mother’s marriage to William Mitchell. Mother earned a living as a laundress. Married Armstead Walker September 14, 1886; four children: Russell Eccles Talmage, Armstead Mitchell (died in infancy), and Melvin DeWitt, one adopted daughter, Polly Anderson. Died December 15, 1934.
Career: Joined Independent Order of St. Luke, a mutual-aid society and insurance provider, in mid-1880s; formed the order’s juvenile division in 1895; elected secretary-treasurer in 1899 and carried out successful membership drive through widespread lecturing; formed St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, 1903. Probably the first female bank president in the United States. Board member of various leading black organizations, 1910s and 1920s.
Honors: Street, high school, and theater named in her honor in Richmond; honorary Master’s degree, Virginia Union University, 1925.
Walker spearheaded a membership drive that eventually brought the order 100,000 members in 22 states, up from only 3,400 members when Walker became secretary-treasurer in 1899. A gifted orator and story-teller, Walker became a traveling lecturer who promoted black cooperative enterprise and economic independence from whites. Well ahead of her time, she urged black consumers to patronize black-owned businesses, and both personally and professionally campaigned for the equality of the sexes and the economic enfranchisement of women. Walker was also involved in the founding of a newspaper and a department store on the part of the Independent Order of St. Luke.
She personally led a crusade within the order to expand the organization’s financial activities beyond the crisis help of medical treatment and burials and into general lending and investment that would result in the betterment of the community at large. As a result of her efforts, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in 1903, with Walker as president. Walker was a self-taught banker who learned what she needed to know by spending several hours a day at another Richmond bank in the months prior to St. Luke’s opening; she was probably the first female bank president in the United States. The bank offered low-cost mortgages to potential black homeowners and was credited with effecting great improvements in blacks’ quality of life in Richmond. The bank eventually became a depository for gas and water payments and for city taxes; in various ways it attained a level of influence in the segregated city that was unthinkable just a short time earlier. During the Great Depression, St. Luke merged with other black-owned banks to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, with Walker as chairman of the board; this bank was still doing business in Richmond as of the mid-1990s.
As her influence and reputation increased, Walker brought her energies to organizations other than the Independent Order of Saint Luke. One of a small group of founders of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, she herself founded or held positions of high influence in various organizations of black women. She also served on both local and national boards of the embattled National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and on the board of the National Urban League. She ran for state Superintendent of Public Instruction on Virginia’s “Lily Black” Republican ticket in 1921.
Walker’s personal life was tumultuous. In 1915 her son Russell mistook his father for a burglar, and shot and killed him. He was indicted for murder but acquitted in a celebrated trial. Russell died in 1924, leaving his wife and child to live with his mother. A fall in 1907 damaged nerves in Walker’s knees; by 1928 she was confined to a wheelchair.
Walker’s spacious Leigh Street home eventually came to house much of her extended family. Today a historic site maintained by the National Park Service, the house was a true center of African American influence in the 1920s when Walker’s standing was at its highest; visitors included W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Known as the Lame Lioness during her last years, Walker died of a gangrene infection on December 15, 1934. A high school was named after her; testimonials came from the governor of Virginia and others; and today the birthday of Maggie Lena Walker is still celebrated in Richmond.
African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Dorothy C. Salem, Garland Publishing, 1993.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Dabney, Wendell, Maggie L. Walker and the I.O. of St. Luke, Dabney, 1927.
Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Wilson and William Ferris, University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A, Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 6th ed., Knopf, 1988.
Georgiady, Nicholas P., Louis G. Romano, and Robert L. Green, Maggie Lena Walker: American Negro Businesswoman, Franklin Publishers, 1969 (foryoung readers).
Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith, Gale Research, Inc., 1992.
Rabinowitz, Howard N., Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890, Oxford University Press, 1978.
Robinson, Wilhelmina S., Historical Afro-American Biographies, International Library of Afro-American Life and History, 1976.
—James M. Manheim
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker (1867-1934) was an African American entrepreneur and civic leader. She and her associates organized a variety of enterprises that advanced the African American community while expanding the public role of women.
Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia, just after the Civil War. Family tradition says that her father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-born newspaperman. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, married William Mitchell while they were both working in the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a famous Union spy. He later became a waiter in one of the fashionable hotels in the city, but after only a few years was found drowned. Elizabeth Mitchell then supported her family by doing laundry. They lived in a small alley house shared with several relatives.
Despite her poverty, she persevered through the city school system and graduated from the Colored Normal School in 1883. Her class of seven protested the fact that African Americans were not allowed to use the city auditorium for their graduations as whites did, but had to use an African American church. Their stand was courageous since it risked their hopes for jobs as teachers in the system they challenged. A compromise permitted the graduation to take place in the school itself.
She taught for three years, but, following school system policy, gave up her job when she married Armstead Walker, Jr., who worked in his family's construction and bricklaying business. Later he was also a postal carrier. The Walkers had three sons, one of whom died in infancy.
While she was still in high school Walker joined a fraternal organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke. Such organizations were popular and numerous. Membership gave people a group that helped in times of illness and death and provided sickness and life insurance, often otherwise not available to African Americans. The meetings centered around a ritual with colorful robes, chances to earn advancement, and opportunities to learn new skills. A "fraternal" provided an important way to bring individual contributions of time and money together to run businesses and carry out significant social projects.
The Independent Order of St. Luke was founded in Baltimore in 1867. When the order moved into Richmond, it did not flourish as other societies had. In 1899, when Walker was elected secretary, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. She brought some training in business, 16 years of experience holding minor posts in the order, and energy, enthusiasm, and organizational ability to the job. St. Luke soon created the combined position of secretary-treasurer for her, and she devoted the rest of her life to building membership and resources, expanding activities in business and social service, and keeping the financial base efficient. She liked to describe the order as a woman's organization that gave equal opportunity to men. At its height in the 1920s it claimed 100,000 members in 22 states.
In addition to real estate and the insurance program, the major St. Luke businesses founded under Walker's leadership included the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which opened in 1903. It had a woman president and several women board members. By 1931 it had merged with the two remaining African American banks in Richmond, resulting in the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which still existed in the mid-1980s. Walker is often described as the first woman bank president in the United States, but her achievement lay in presiding over a successful bank. Another project, the order's newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, printed outspoken editorials on the condition of African Americans in bigoted times.
As segregation in the South increased, many African American leaders emphasized entrepreneurship, "buy Black" campaigns, and the employment of African Americans as a primary avenue for community advancement. Walker agreed to that agenda and added a powerful plea for the creation of employment for African American women other than in domestic service.
Walker was a charismatic speaker whose favorite topics were race pride and unity, women's problems and potential, African American business, and oppression. As her importance grew, she became more and more active in civic affairs. She was the founder and lifelong head of the Colored Women's Council of Richmond, which raised money for local projects and maintained a community house.
She served many years on the executive committee of the National Association of Colored Women, whose projects included restoring and opening the Frederick Douglass Home to the public. For over a decade she was a member of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the guiding spirit of the Richmond branch. She was on the board of the Richmond Urban League and a member of the Interracial Commission. She was on the board of two schools for girls—one in Richmond and one in Washington—and served as a trustee of Hartshorn College and Virginia Union University. She was an active contributor to the work of her beloved First African Baptist Church.
Walker became a relatively wealthy woman and a philanthropist. Her home was made a national historic site, administered by the National Park Service. There one can see how the family lived, learn about the Richmond African American community, and appreciate the breadth of her friendships. The library walls are lined with pictures of friends: Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Langston Hughes, and many others. The shelves are full of books on African American history and life.
Walker achieved what she did despite the heavy social odds against her. She also had personal handicaps and suffering. In 1915 her husband Armstead was shot and killed by their son, Russell, who mistook his father for a burglar. He was indicted for murder, but acquitted. Walker had severe health problems and spent the last seven years of her life in a wheelchair. However, she continued to travel to places as far away as Florida and Chicago. Walker died of diabetic gangrene on December 15, 1934. According to tradition, her last message was "Have hope, have faith, have courage, and carry on."
The standard book on Maggie Walker is still Maggie L. Walker and the I.O. of St. Luke: The Woman and Her Work by her lifelong friend and classmate Wendell P. Dabney (1927). Brief biographical sketches include Sadie Daniel St. Clair's in Notable American Women, 1607-1960 (1971) and Rayford Logan's in the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (1982). Longer accounts are in Lily H. Hammond's In the Vanguard of the Race (1922), Mary White Ovington's Portraits in Color (1927), and Sadie I. Daniel's Women Builders (1931). □