February is Black History Month in the United States, a time when we recognize the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans over the course of our history as a nation. Black History Month was first recognized as a national observance in 1976 by President Gerald Ford as a part of the American Bicentennial celebrations. Black Americans have made many important contributions in Virginia. One especially noteworthy figure is Maggie L Walker, a civic leader and businesswoman who made a lasting impact in Richmond, Virginia and beyond.
Maggie Walker was born Maggie Lena Draper in 1864. She was born in Richmond, Virginia on the estate of abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew where her mother worked. As a teenager, she helped with her mother’s laundry business, which served mainly white patrons. It was through this experience that she first became aware of the difference in quality of life and social standing of black and white Virginians.
Maggie attended school at the Richmond Colored Normal School, which is still in operation as Armstrong High School today. She graduated in 1883, having been trained as a teacher. She worked as a teacher until 1886 when she married Armstead Walker Jr.
While she was in school, she joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization devoted to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. After her marriage, she was able to devote more time to this organization, as she was no longer teaching. She advanced quickly in the ranks of the Order and took charge of the organization in 1899. At this time, the Order was on the verge of bankruptcy, but through Maggie’s strong leadership, she was able to turn its fortunes around.
Most notably, Mrs. Walker founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. She was the first African American woman to serve as president of a bank in the United States. As with other activities of the Order of St. Luke, the bank was founded to advance African American interests. Maggie found that white-owned banks were less willing to accept deposits from African Americans and African American organizations such as the Order. By 1924, the bank served over 50,000 patrons at 1,500 branches. She remained president of the bank until 1929 when she merged with two other black-owned banks to prevent it from going under during the Great Depression.
Maggie Walker also spearheaded other notable activities with the Order of St. Luke. In 1902 she established a newspaper called the St. Luke Herald to carry news to all the Order’s chapters. In 1905 she, along with other women in the Order, started a department store, St. Luke’s Emporium, to provide affordable goods to the African American community. Mrs. Walker remained the Grand Secretary of the Order of St. Luke until her death in 1934 due to complications from diabetes.
Maggie L. Walker’s legacy lives on in Richmond today. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased her home on East Leigh Street in Jackson Ward and converted it into a National Historic Site. The Maggie L. Walker house offers field trips and educational programs to the community. The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies was established in 1991.
Happy Black History Month!