Maggie Lena Walker
July 15, 1864 – December 15, 1934
Elizabeth Draper was a formerly enslaved woman who earned a living as a cook in the Richmond, Virginia household of an abolitionist. It was in that household that Draper met Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-born Confederate soldier who spent some time on the estate. It’s unclear what exactly was the nature of Elizabeth and Eccles’ situation but while they were never married, Elizabeth gave birth to Cuthbert’s child, Maggie Lena Draper.
Sometime after Draper’s birth, Elizabeth married William Mitchell who was the estate’s butler. While Eccles was the child’s biological father, William raised her as his own and she became Maggie Lena Mitchell. The couple went on to have a son when Mitchell was about six years old. Eventually, William found a job at a prestigious hotel which enabled the family to leave the estate and rent a home of their own.
Unfortunately, William was found dead in the James River in February of 1876. He had drowned and the death was ruled a suicide though Elizabeth believed that he had been murdered and Mitchell later stated that she believed the same. William’s death caused a financial hardship which resulted in a great change of fortune for the family. To support herself and the two children, Elizabeth began taking in laundry which Mitchell helped to deliver after it had been washed. While making deliveries, Mitchell noticed the disparity between the humble circumstances of her family and community and the relative comfort of the White families.
Mitchell was able to get an education at the new public schools that had been established for Black people after the Civil War. It was during this period that she also joined the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), a fraternal order that provided support for the sick or deceased and also promoted and encouraged financial and social progress for Black people. She found work as a teacher after graduating but had to leave her job after a few years per the school’s policy which barred married women from working at the school.
Mitchell had met and married Armstead Walker Jr., a successful brick contractor, and became Maggie Lena Walker. Their marriage produced three sons (though one would die in infancy) and an adopted daughter. The family moved to a nine-room house in the Jackson Ward neighborhood which would eventually expand to almost 30 rooms. Walker divided her time between the IOSL and taking care of the children and household.
By 1899, Walker had worked her way up in the IOSL to be elected into the organization’s highest position of leadership. In her time with the organization, Walker reached out to Black youths to help them build self-confidence and get them involved in the organization as well as the community. Her ascent to the leadership role was bittersweet as it came when the organization was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Walker would guide the IOSL through this period of uncertainty and for the rest of her life.
While Walker was working as a teacher, she’d also been taking classes in accounting and business. Upon assuming control of the IOSL she used these skills to ensure the organization’s financial solvency. She formed a vision for how the organization could help the Black community achieve financial independence and self-determination through its creation of various Black-owned businesses.
Because segregation limited educational and employment opportunities for Black people, Black women were often limited to domestic-type jobs such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. A major part of Walker’s future plans for the Order was a focus on Black economic independence. This included providing Black women with more options for earning higher incomes in jobs that were less physically demanding.
The first business Maggie Lena Walker launched was The St. Luke Herald newspaper. It was established in 1902 to share the Independent Order’s vision and endeavors with local chapters. With the success of the Herald, the IOSL opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903 to better serve the Black community.
Mainstream banks underserved or ignored Black communities at best, indulging in predatory practices at worst. Segregation made it difficult for Black people to obtain mortgages and personal loans which added to the various obstacles in the way of securing funds to purchase homes or build businesses. With the creation of the bank, Richmond saw an increase in Black homeownership which functioned as a foundation of wealth-building for the community. When Walker became the bank’s first president, she also became the first Black woman in America to charter a bank.
The 1905 launch of the Saint Luke Emporium, a department store, created sales and service jobs primarily for Black women. But the store also enabled the Black community to purchase products that were geared towards their needs and more competitively priced. During segregation, Black people were barred from shopping in some White-only stores. Others allowed Black people to make purchases but they could not try on items or might have to make purchases from the store’s back door.
The various IOSL businesses made it possible for Black women to work in office jobs such as secretaries, journalists, accountants, etc. Though it’s noted that Walker was a very strict taskmaster requiring employees to arrive early and work long hours. The organization’s funds also had to be accounted for down to the last nickel.
In between launching the bank and department store, Walker helped to organize a boycott of Richmond’s segregated streetcars which forced the Virginia Passenger and Power Company out of business. She later co-founded local chapters of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and NAACP, ultimately serving as president of the NAACP chapter. Walker also supported various other organizations that had missions of improving conditions for Black people in general and/or Black women in particular.
Yet, as had been the case throughout her life, Walker’s progress as a businesswoman and activist was tempered by hardships and setbacks. An embezzlement scandal took place at another bank that was associated with another fraternal order. This resulted in the state of Virginia issuing a requirement that fraternal orders and banks operate independently of each other. Thus the IOSL had to separate from the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. And though well-intentioned, the St. Luke Emporium closed in 1911 as it faced opposition from White businesses. The store also struggled from a lack of support from Black consumers as some bypassed the store in favor of continuing to shop at White-owned stores.
Personal tragedy struck in 1915 when Walker’s husband was accidentally shot and killed by their son who mistook his father returning home at night for an intruder. Walker’s son was tried and acquitted but the experience caused him to struggle with alcoholism and depression which ultimately claimed his life in 1923. Walker developed diabetes around the time of her son’s death and later a leg wound that would not heal, which required her to begin using a wheelchair in 1928.
By the mid-1920s, St. Luke’s bank had grown to over 50,000 members and branches had been established outside of Richmond. Yet, by the late 1920s, Walker noticed that the bank’s assets were shrinking. To shore up its financial footing, Walker merged St. Luke’s with two other Richmond banks. The new financial institution became The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, for which Walker served as chairperson. The merger would prove to be well-timed as it helped the bank survive the Great Depression and set it on track to being the oldest continuously Black-owned and operated bank until the early 2000s.
While she remained active at the bank, Walker’s health continued to decline and she died on December 15, 1934, at the age of 70 from diabetic gangrene. Her funeral took place at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church and she was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery. The home that the Walkers had built at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street remained in the family until it was purchased by the National Park Service and declared a National Historic Site in 1979.
- Branch, Muriel Miller. n.d. “Walker, Maggie Lena (1864–1934).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/walker-maggie-lena-1864-1934/.
- “Maggie L. Walker.” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/people/maggie-l-walker.htm.
- “Maggie Lena Walker.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. August 7, 2020. https://www.biography.com/scholar/maggie-lena-walker.
- Moten, Crystal Marie. 2020. “Pennies and Nickels Add up to Success: Maggie Lena Walker.” National Museum of American History. February 27, 2020. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/maggie-walker.
- Norwood, Arlisha R. 2017. “Maggie Lena Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/maggie-lena-walker.
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