“Incredible Black Women You Should Know About” – The Series
Maggie Lena Walker – First Black Bank President
(July 15, 1864 – December 15, 1934)
By DonnaMarie Woodson
This article, from the December 2021 edition of the Charmeck Chronicle, is published here with permission of the author.
Maggie Lena Walker, was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia, to Eccles Cuthbert and Elizabeth Draper two years and two months after the American Civil War. Census information and a diary passage say that she was four years old at her mother’s wedding in May 1868 to William Mitchell.
According to the National Park Service, Maggie became a teacher and established a newspaper before founding the St. Luke Penny Savings bank in 1903.
In chartering the bank and serving as its first president, Ms. Walker broke gender and racial barriers.
She later served as board chairwoman when the bank merged with two other Richmond banks – serving as the nation’s oldest continually African-American-operated bank.
In 1903, Maggie L. Walker became the first African American woman to charter a bank and the first African American woman to serve as a bank president.
As a leader, Ms. Walker achieved success with the vision to make tangible improvements in the way of life for African Americans. Disabled by paralysis and a wheelchair user later in life, Walker also became an example for people with disabilities.
Maggie’s mother was a former slave and an assistant cook in the Church Hill mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, who had been a spy in the Confederate capital city of Richmond for the Union during the War, and was later postmaster for Richmond.
Her stepfather, William Mitchell, was a butler and former slave. Her biological father, Eccles Cuthbert, was an Irish-born Confederate soldier and a postwar writer for the New York Herald. Eccles did not marry Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth, because marriage between Negroes and whites would be illegal in Virginia until 1967.
Maggie’s family moved to their own home on College Alley off of Broad Street nearby Miss Van Lew’s home, and this is where Maggie and her brother Johnnie grew up. The house was near the First African Baptist Church, which, like many black churches at the time, was an economic, political, and social center for the local black community.
After the untimely death of Maggie’s stepfather, Maggie’s mother supported her family by working as a laundress. Young Maggie attended the newly formed Richmond Public Schools and helped her mother by delivering clean clothes.
Richmond Public Schools built a large brick high school adjacent to Virginia Union University in
Walker’s honor. Maggie L. Walker High School was one of two schools in the area for black students during racial segregation in schools; the other was Armstrong High School.
After generations of students attending the Maggie L. Walker High School, the school underwent refurbishing, reopening in 2001 as the regional Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies.
As the Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, it shared space at Thomas Jefferson High School in the city’s West End from its 1991 founding until summer 2001, when it moved into Maggie L. Walker High School after massive renovations. Since 2006, Newsweek Magazine’s recognition declares the school as one of the twenty-one most elite public schools in America.
Maggie became an activist in her community at the young age of 14 when she joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke. This fraternal burial society, established in 1867 in Baltimore, Maryland, ministered to the sick and aged, promoted humanitarian causes, and encouraged individual self-help and integrity.
Maggie devoted herself to the Order and rose steadily through its ranks. A pioneering insurance executive, financier and civic icon, she established the Juvenile Branch of the Order in 1895 while serving as grand deputy matron. This branch encouraged education, community service, and thrift in young members.
Under the leadership of Ms. Walker, The Order’s mission to foster African American economic independence arises through enterprises housed in the St. Luke Building, such as The St. Luke Herald newspaper, the St. Luke Educational Fund, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and the St. Luke Emporium.
Over the years, Maggie served in numerous capacities of increasing responsibility for the Order, from a delegate to the biannual convention to the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in
1899, until her death.
Maggie’s office in the St. Luke Building, as late as 1981, was being preserved as it was at the time of her death in 1934. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The National Park Service operates the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site at her former Jackson Ward home. In 1978 the house was designated a National Historic Site and was opened as a museum in 1985.
The site states that it “commemorates the life of a progressive and talented African-American woman achieving success in the world of business and finance as the first woman in the United States to charter and serve as president of a bank, despite the many adversities.”
The site includes a visitor center detailing her life and the Jackson Ward community where she lived and worked. Her residence of thirty years is restored to its 1930’s appearance with original Walker family pieces.
On September 14, 1886, in Richmond, Maggie married Armstead Walker Jr. (1860–1915), a brick contractor. Armstead earned a good living, and in 1904 Maggie and Armstead purchased a home.
They had four children: Mary Polly Walker (1885–1967; Russell Eccles Talmadge Walker (1890–1923); Armstead Mitchell Walker (1893– 1894); and Melvin DeWitt Walker (1897–1935).
After an illness in 1928, Maggie started using a wheelchair. Although limited in movement, Walker remained a leader in the Richmond African American community. She fought arduously for women’s rights as well. For much of her life, Walker served as a board member of the Virginia Industrial School for Girls.
On December 15, 1934, Walker died from complications of diabetes and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, an historic African-American cemetery where several other prominent figures from the 19th and 20th century were laid to rest.
Wikipedia on Walker
National Park Service
Wikipedia on St. Luke Building
The Clio on St. Luke Penny Savings Bank
Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School on commemorative bust
Norwood, Arlisha. “Maggie Walker.” National Women’s History Museum.