A look at the life and times of Maggie Walker

(Photos: National Historic Site/nps.gov)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Maggie Walker’s name is well known in Richmond. But just who was she?

Walker was born on July 15, 1867, just two months after the end of the Civil War. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Draper, a former slave and the assistant cook at abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew’s mansion in Church Hill. Maggie’s biological father is said to be Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-American abolitionist who reported for the New York Herald. There is no record that suggests Cuthbert and Draper ever married.

Shortly after Maggie’s birth, though, her mother married William Mitchell, the butler of the Van Lew estate. In 1870, the Mitchells had a child, Maggie’s half-brother Johnnie.

After a few years of working at Van Lew’s home, William Mitchell got a job as the head waiter at the St. Charles Hotel. The family then moved to their own home on College Alley near the Medical College of Virginia, where Maggie and her brother Johnnie were raised.

In February 1876, tragedy struck when William was found drowned in the James River. Police ruled his death a suicide, though Elizabeth maintained that he was murdered.

After Mitchell’s death, his family was plunged into poverty. To make ends meet, Elizabeth began a small laundry business while young Maggie helped her mother by delivering clean clothes to their white patrons. On the job, Maggie saw the economic and social disparities between races. This part of Walker’s childhood left an impact on her, she said.

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head,” Maggie recalled in 1904.

Maggie was among the fortunate blacks, though, because she was able to attend the newly formed Richmond Public Schools. She went to the Lancaster School and later graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883, where she was trained to be a teacher. After her graduation, she returned to the Lancaster School, where she taught for three years.

On September 14, 1886, Maggie wed Armstead Walker Jr. They had three sons: Russell Eccles Talmadge Walker was born in 1890. Armstead Mitchell Walker was born in 1893, but died seven months later. Their youngest son, Melvin DeWitt Walker, was born in 1897. They also adopted a daughter, Polly Anderson.

Maggie Walker, 1898-1910. (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)
Maggie Walker, 1898-1910. (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)

Due to a school policy that forbade the employment of married women, Maggie was forced to quit her job as a teacher.

While Maggie was still in school in 1881, she joined an African American fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Saint Luke.  The Independent Order’s progenitor, the United Order of Saint Luke, was established in 1867 as a Baltimore-based women’s mutual insurance society. The group provided care for the sick and burial for the dead. It was one of several African American fraternal organizations dedicated to supporting the advancement of the black community.

Although the United Order initially only accepted women, men were eventually admitted. In 1869, a factional dispute led by William M. T. Forrester prompted Richmond members of the United Order to form the new Independent Order of Saint Luke. Forrester led the Independent Order for thirty years until 1899, when he abandoned the organization for fear of its financial collapse.

During the latter part of Forrester’s tenure and after Maggie was forced to leave her teaching position, she rose through the ranks of the Independent Order and used her positions to influence and encourage young people. As Grand Deputy Matron, Walker established the Juvenile Branch of the Independent Order in an effort to instill a sense of community awareness and confidence in young African Americans. The branch focused on the importance of education and community service. To emphasize her belief that future success depended on investing in the youth, Maggie adopted the maxim: “As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined.”

Ahead of the Independent Order’s bankruptcy, Walker was elected to take Forrester’s place as Grand Secretary. She held the position until her death in 1934. Having worked in various positions in the Order over a period of 16 years, Walker brought a well-rounded and diverse perspective to her new role. She devoted the rest of her life to building membership and resources, expanding activities in business and social service, and keeping the financial operations efficient.

Under Maggie’s guidance and leadership, the Order’s financial woes were completely reversed. Over 25 years of having Walker at the helm, The Independent Order of Saint Luke collected nearly $3.5 million, claimed 100,000 members in twenty-four states, and built up almost $100,000 in reserve.

On August 20, 1901, Maggie Walker delivered a now-famous speech before the Order’s council. In it, she spoke of her vision to take the group to new heights by creating a conglomerate: a bank chartered and operated by the Order’s members, a newspaper to spread the news and a department store run by black employees and targeted toward black consumers with goods they wanted at more affordable prices than those of white retailers.

Within five years, Walker helped each enterprise become a reality. The St. Luke Herald began operating in 1902, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank opened for business in November 1903 and the Saint Luke Emporium was up and running by April 1905. Through this project, the African American community could become economically independent and self-sustaining.

Portrait of Maggie Walker wearing cross pendant and pearls. The pendant reflected her deep spiritual beliefs. 1925-1930. (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)
Portrait of Maggie Walker wearing cross pendant and pearls. The pendant reflected her deep spiritual beliefs. 1925-1930. (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)

“Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves,” Walker said of her hope for the bank. “Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Maggie encouraged young people to open bank accounts and start saving early so their funds could grow as they did and so that they could achieve economic independence from white employers.

The bank’s success helped to ensure the longevity and stability of Richmond’s black middle class. It also sparked the increase in black home ownership in the city.

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

While other banks failed during the Great Depression, Walker managed to keep the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank alive and well by merging it with two other banks, creating the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company in 1929. At the start of the 21st century, the bank continued to thrive and was the oldest bank continuously run by African Americans in the U.S.

Walker faced many challenges in her time.

After the United Order of True Reformer’s bank failed due to an embezzlement scandal in 1910, the Commonwealth mandated that fraternal societies and financial institutions be separate. To comply with the new law, the St. Luke bank became officially independent of the Order.

The Saint Luke Emporium, the retail part of Walker’s conglomerate, struggled from its beginning. The emporium had a hard time making money due to opposition from white retailers and reluctance from black customers who continued to shop at white businesses, perhaps out of fear for repercussions had they not. The store shut down in 1911.

In the middle of dealing with these obstacles, tragedy struck at home. In June 1915, Walker’s son, Russell, shot and killed his father mistakenly, under the impression that he was an intruder. He was arrested and charged with murder. After five months awaiting trial, Russell was declared innocent, though he never recovered from the incident. After eight years of battling depression and alcoholism, he died on November 23, 1923.

Walker developed diabetes and ended up spending the last decade of her life in a wheelchair due to her failing health and a leg wound that never healed. She didn’t let that stop her, though.

Mrs. Walker in her "rolling chair." (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)
Mrs. Walker in her “rolling chair.” (Photo: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site/nps.gov)

Maggie engaged in several civic issues and was a leading activist in the fight against discrimination and segregation. She cofounded the Richmond Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Council of Colored Women and was one of the organizers of the 1904 boycott protesting the segregated seating policy on Richmond’s streetcars by the Virginia Passenger and Power Company. The boycott was so successful that the company went out of business within the year.

In 1904, the Walker family bought a home at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street, in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. At the time, Jackson Ward was known as the “Harlem of the South” because it was the hub of the city’s African American business and cultural life. The Walkers opened their home to their family, including their children and grandchildren. Over time, the house was expanded from nine to 28 rooms to accommodate the rapidly growing family.

In 1921, Walker ran for office on the ticket for the “Lily Black” Republicans, an all-black offshoot of the Republican party. She ran with editor and publisher of the Richmond Planet, John Mitchell Jr. Mitchell. He was running for governor while Walker sought the superintendent of public instruction position. However, all of the black Republicans lost.

Walker continued fighting for change within her community. She was a big contributor to the Industrial Home for Wayward Girls and also an ardent supporter of the antilynching movement.

On December 15, 1934, Maggie Walker passed away from diabetic gangrene. A funeral was held for her at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, where she had been a longtime member. Her home on E. Leigh Street was purchased b the National Park Service in 1979 and is now a National Historic Site that you can visit. Get more information here. A college preparatory school partially funded by the state, the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, was also established in 1991.

Now, Richmond officials are hoping to honor and memorialize Walker with a statue dedicated to her in the city. Click here to check out some of the concepts revealed for the statue.

If you can’t make it to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, you can click here to check out a virtual museum tour exhibit on the National Parks Service website.

Information from this story was collected from Encyclopedia Virginia.

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