Maggie Lena Walker wore many hats: teacher, mother, businesswoman, entrepreneur, and activist, among other roles. She was given an honorary Master’s degree from Virginia Union University, was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S Business Hall of Fame, and had a street, theatre and high school named after her for her efforts as a community leader.
Walker was born in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia, to Elizabeth Draper, assistant cook to Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, and William Mitchell, who served as a butler in the same mansion. Both were former slaves emancipated through the 13th amendment.
Soon after the death of her father, Walker took on multiple jobs to help support the family, including delivering clothes for her mother’s small laundry business. After graduating at the top of her class in 1883, she immediately began teaching at Lancaster School, where she was also a student, taking classes in accounting and business. After teaching for three years, she began working as a secretary at the Independent Order of St. Luke, and following her marriage to Armstead Walker, Jr. in 1886. The organization was an African-American fraternity and cooperative insurance society, which lent a hand to the sick and elderly members of the community.
She worked her way up to the position of executive secretary-treasurer and, at the time, the organization was in debt, with approximately 3,400 members in some 57 chapters. A business-savvy Walker got to work. In 1902, she created the St. Luke Herald to foster closer communication with the public, promote humanitarian causes, spread educational information including the training of children in industry and hygiene, and to carry news to other local chapters. The following year, Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and became its president. She was recognized as the first woman — of any race — to charter a bank in the US. By 1924, the head office saw its staff grow to 50 individuals serving 50,000 members in 1,500 local chapters. In the following years, the bank merged with two other local banks and became Trust Company and The Consolidated Bank, with Walker serving as chairman of the board of directors.
Along with her entrepreneurial success, Walker was a known community activist. As an avid fighter for women’s rights, she helped found the Richmond Council of Coloured Women in 1912 and raised copious support for institutions like Janie Porter Barrett’s Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls. Walker also served as a member of several humanitarian organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the Virginia Interracial Committee, and the International Council of Women of the Darker Races. Even through the Independent Order of St. Luke, she encouraged investment and collective action, eventually leading to the advancement of the community in Richmond.
Walker’s health steadily declined, but despite her physical limitations she remained active and committed to her work. She was chairman of the bank and leader of the Order of St. Luke until her passing in December, 1934.
Maggie Lena Walker was more than just a rags-to-riches story. She played a vital role in the life of Richmond’s African-American community at the turn of the century. The greatest of her successes included being the first American woman, let alone African-American woman, to charter a bank. Under her leadership, there came major improvements in the quality of life for African Americans and women. Maggie Walker managed multiple business ventures, played a key role in advancing the community, and expanded the public role of women in a post- Civil War South despite social, economic, and political barriers. This entrepreneurial activist rose to national prominence and her home was designated a national historic landmark in 1975.
Helen Jacob | Staff Writer