Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934), First Woman to Be a Bank President
Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1864 to Elizabeth Draper, a former slave who worked at the Richmond home of Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist and Union spy. Maggie’s father was an Irish American visiting the estate, so he soon moved on.
Later Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth, married the butler who took a job as a headwaiter at a hotel in Richmond. The new family moved away from the estate and Maggie’s mother established a laundry business—one of the few types of businesses that could be run by blacks.
When Elizabeth’s husband died (or is thought to have actually been robbed and killed), Elizabeth had to support herself and now two children, so Maggie helped out in the laundry business after school, learning the importance of hard work.
Maggie graduated from high school (Richmond Colored Normal School) and was offered a teaching job at the school. After a couple of years, she met and married Armstead Walker Jr., a brick contractor. The school had a rule that married women could not work so she was forced to leave her job at that time.
Order of St. Luke
As early as her teen years, Walker became interested in the Independent Order of St. Luke, a religious and fraternal organization that was dedicated to the advancement of African Americans.
The organization was started in 1867 by a former slave, and from 1889 on, there was an office in Richmond. Because African-Americans were usually not seen by white doctors, the organization’s goal was to provide its members with proper health care and services such as burial arrangements. The organization had at its core a strong religious component, and they did all they could to provide various types of help to members of the community.
In 1899 the Order of St. Luke tapped Walker to be in a top leadership position—Grand Worthy Secretary. She spent the following 25 years building the organization and providing additional services. During Walker’s lifetime, the Order built to over 100,000 members in 24 states.
In 1902 Walker began publishing a newsletter, The St. Luke Herald, to increase awareness of the services offered by St. Luke’s and to cover issues that were important to the community. The newsletter was a big success; it carried ads for the African-American community, spoke out for equal opportunities for black children in education, and created economic opportunities for black women.
By 1903 Walker felt the next task to undertake was building a sound financial institution, and she founded a Penny Savings Bank for the Order of St. Luke and served as president. Its goal was to encourage savings and facilitate loans to community members; by 1920 the bank had helped about 600 families purchase homes.
Eventually the Penny Savings Bank absorbed all other black-owned banks in Richmond and changed its name to Consolidated Bank and Trust Company (1929). Walker became chairman of the board.
Started a Department Store
In 1905 Walker very thoughtfully planned out opening a St. Luke’s Emporium. At a time when blacks still received poor treatment if they ventured into white-owned stores, she felt that providing employment for the community and a pleasant shopping environment for African-Americans would be beneficial. But white businesses in Richmond were angered by the move, and blacks did not come to shop in the way that Walker anticipated, so by 1911, the emporium closed down.
Lena Walker became a well-established and respected leader in the Richmond community and worked tirelessly for equal rights. Walker founded the Richmond Council of Colored Women to raise money for education and health programs. She was a member of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, the National Association of Wage Earners, the National Urban League, and she co-founded the Richmond branch of the NAACP. She also joined in the fight for women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment.
Her later years were marred by sorrow. Her husband died in a tragic accident when her son thought he was an intruder in the home and shot him. Walker herself suffered health problems and spent her last years in a wheelchair. However, she remained active and committed to her causes until her death in 1934.
For more information on Maggie Walker’s life and legacy, there is a website run by the National Park Service that is dedicated to her. In addition, her home in Richmond is an NPS site.