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Maggie Lena Walker, Black Businesswoman and Bank President

Maggie Lena Walker was the first Black woman in the nation or organize and run a bank. She led a fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Saint Luke. Through it, she also started a Black newspaper and a department store to provide better access for Black citizens. In her businesses, she highly favored employing Black women, as she knew they had few other work opportunities. For all these reasons and more, she should be remembered.

Walker’s Early Life

Walker’s mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave who worked at the Richmond home of the well-to-do Elizabeth Van Lew. Van Lew was an ardent abolitionist, but because she moved among the wealthy Confederate families, she could serve as an effective Union spy.

On the Van Lew estate, Maggie’s mother met many people who stayed with Van Lew. Maggie’s father was a Confederate soldier visiting the estate, and Maggie was born in 1864. The soldier moved on, so he was never a part of Maggie’s life.

Later, Elizabeth Draper married a fellow servant. He got a job as a headwaiter at a hotel in Richmond. This gave the young couple the income to move off the estate. Draper established a laundry business to help support the family. This was one of the few types of businesses that could be run by Blacks.

Elizabeth’s husband died several years later, so Elizabeth’s laundry business became key to providing support for Maggie and her younger brother. After school, both of them helped their mother with the laundry business.

When Maggie graduated from high school (Richmond Colored Normal School), she was offered a teaching job at the school. After a couple of years, she met and married Armstead Walker Jr., a brick contractor.  Like most places of employment at this time, the school had a rule that married women could not work. Maggie Walker had to leave her job at that time. Between the church and the Independent Order of Saint Luke, she had places to invest her energy.

Independent Order of Saint Luke

Maggie Walker became interested in the Independent Order of Saint Luke during her teen years. This was a benefit society started in 1867 by a free woman in Baltimore. The purpose of the organization was to provide help and support for Blacks in areas where white businesses turned them down. Most white doctors refused to see Black patients; former slaves did not have access to loans to start a business or buy seed for their farms. Organizations like Saint Luke–also called a fraternal organization or a mutual benefit society–provided insurance, educational funding, and financial services to Black citizens and acted as a clearing house for services like health care.

Maggie Lena Walker

In 1865, Congress created the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company to serve the financial needs of the newly freed, but it soon became useless. Corruption among the white managers ran rampant. Depositors who trusted the Freedman’s Bureau lost huge sums of money. As a result, Black people were very skeptical of any type of financial institution. This increased the challenge for what Maggie Lena Walker hoped to do.

As Walker took on greater responsibility in running the Richmond chapter of Saint Luke’s, she saw the damage done by the Freedman’s Bureau and saw that Black families were turning to pawnbrokers, payday lenders, and loan sharks when they needed money.

With the idea of starting a bank, Walker gook correspondence classes in finance and accounting. (No one discriminated against a person they knew only on paper. She was also befriended by a white bank manager in Richmond. He invited her to spend several hours each week at the bank so that she could study their operations.

Leading the Way Forward

In 1899, the Order of Saint Luke appointed Walker to be Grand Worthy Secretary–a top leadership position. She spent the next 25 years building the organization. Through it, she started other services she knew people needed. By the end of her time leading the organization, The Order ranged over 24 states and had 100,000 members.

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.

As Walker took on greater responsibility in running the Richmond chapter of Saint Luke’s, she saw the damage done by the Freedman’s Bureau and saw that Black families were turning to pawnbrokers, payday lenders, and loan sharks when they needed money.

Starting a Bank

With the idea of starting a bank, Walker gook correspondence classes in finance and accounting. (No one discriminated against a person they knew only on paper. She was also befriended by a white bank manager in Richmond. He invited her to spend several hours each week at the bank so that she could study their operations.

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. By 1920, the bank yeld assets of $530,00–about $7 million in today’s money. This was an enormous amount of money for a bank whose depositors would come in and add to their accounts, several pennies at a time.

While the bank was open to anyone, Maggie Lena Walker grew up the daughter of woman business owner and saw her mother’s friends also carefully managed their money. For that reason, Walker employed as many women as she could, and much of the advertising for the bank was oriented to women.

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.

“Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Maggie Lena Walker

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 shopped at white-owned stores, she felt that a store could provide employment for the community as well as a pleasant shopping experiences. But white businesses in Richmond were angered by the move. Blacks did not come to shop in the way that Walker anticipated, so by 1911, the emporium closed down.

Walker in Later Life

Maggie 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.

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Her later years were marred by sorrow, however. Her husband died in a tragic accident so she was left to raise her sons alone. Walker herself suffered health problems, but she didn’t let that stop her. She had a special wheelchair with a writing desk made so that she could continue her activities. She remained committed to her causes until her death in 1934.

For more information on Maggie Walker’s life and legacy, there is a Maggie Lena Walker website run by the National Park Service that is dedicated to her. In addition, her home in Richmond is an NPS site.

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5 thoughts on “Maggie Lena Walker, Black Businesswoman and Bank President”

  1. What an amazing stories. What i love about this series is that it offers fascinating stories about women for students to learn about during Women’s History months.

  2. Pingback: The First Woman To Start A Bank Finally Gets Recognition – Black Owned And Operated

  3. Pingback: The First African-American Woman To Start A Bank Finally Gets Recognition | Alternative Afrika

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