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date: 15 December 2019

Walker, Maggie

(15 July 1867–15 December 1934)
  • Muriel Miller Branch

Walker, Maggie L. (15 July 1867–15 December 1934), educator, social activist, and bank president, was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia, the daughter of Elizabeth Draper, a former slave, and Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-American journalist. Her natural parents could not marry. (The Virginia law prohibiting the marriage of mixed-race couples was overturned in 1967, a century after Maggie's birth.) In 1868 Elizabeth Draper married William Mitchell, a mulatto butler who, like herself, was employed by the wealthy abolitionist and Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. Several years later Elizabeth and William Mitchell found jobs independent of the Van Lews, and moved their family to a rented house on a short street (alley) near the Medical College of Virginia. William Mitchell became headwaiter at the St. Charles Hotel, and Elizabeth Mitchell's work as a laundress was highly regarded. Their combined wages provided the family a tenuous financial security. That security quickly vanished in 1876, when William Mitchell's body was found in the James River, the apparent victim of robbery and murder, though the coroner's report indicated suicide by drowning. The widowed Elizabeth was left to provide for herself and her two small children on the meager income from her laundry business. Years later Maggie Walker described that difficult time in her life. “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head,” she said (Maggie Walker Papers, “Stumbling Blocks Speech,” 1904).

Elizabeth Mitchell's illiteracy probably accounted for her determination to see that Maggie and Johnnie, her other child, received the best education available to African Americans in Richmond in the 1870s and 1880s. They attended the Lancaster School operated by Quakers. Maggie Walker excelled at Lancaster and at the Richmond Colored Normal School. On the eve of her graduation from the normal school in 1883, Walker joined with her classmates in one of the first recorded school strikes by African Americans in the United States. The class of 1883 successfully protested the Richmond Public Schools' discriminatory policy of holding separate graduation ceremonies for white and black students. “Our parents pay taxes just the same as you white folks, and you've got no business spending big money out of those taxes to pay for the theater for white children unless you do the same for black children,” they challenged (Branch and Rice).

In the fall of 1883, Walker's former teacher Lizzie Knowles offered her a teaching position at Valley School. Walker accepted and taught there for three years. During that time, she also took business classes at night. In 1886 she married Armstead Walker, Jr., the son of a prominent black contractor. Because married women were not allowed to teach in Virginia, Walker gave up her teaching job. The Walkers had three sons.

At a time when most married women were expected to be contented homemakers, Walker volunteered at the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), the benevolent organization founded by the former slave Mary Prout in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1867. Walker imagined that the Order could become much more than a benevolent burial society. Armed with a respected normal school education and business acumen gained through the successful completion of business classes, she sought ways to strengthen and expand the Order, especially in the areas of education and employment for women. She later was responsible for the establishment of an educational loan fund for needy children and the employment of more women in the Order. She was also the chief architect of the Juvenile Branch, established in 1895 as a training ground for young people.

Walker's rise through the ranks of the Order was swift. With her election as Right Worthy Grand Secretary of the Order in Hinton, West Virginia, in the fall of 1899 Walker became its top executive. She quickly breathed new life and vitality into the Order by expanding the number of councils and recruiting new members. By the 1920s the Order had 100,000 members in twenty-eight states.

Walker is best known as the founder of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which opened for business on 2 November 1903. As its first president, Walker gained the distinction of being the first woman to charter a bank in the United States. In a rousing speech delivered at the 1901 meeting of the Right Worthy Grand Council (IOSL), she exhorted her colleagues to establish the bank. “What do we need to further develop and prosper us, numerically and financially? First we need a savings bank, chartered, officered and run by the men and women of this Order. Let us put our money's together; let us use our money's. … Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars,” she urged (Fiftieth Anniversary-Golden Jubilee Historical Report of the R.W.G. Council, I. O. St. Luke 1867–1917, pp. 23–24). In 1930 Walker led a successful merger that resulted in the present-day Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, the oldest continuously existing black-owned and black-run bank in the United States.

During her tenure as its leader (1899–1934), Maggie Lena Walker enlarged the operations of the Order to include enterprises of importance to the African-American community, including a weekly newspaper, the St. Luke Herald (first published in 1902 to serve as the mouthpiece of the Order) and the Emporium department store (with a bank inside) that opened on Broad Street in Richmond on 10 April 1905. Walker's idea of one-stop shopping was far ahead of its time; however, the overriding purpose was to provide an alternative to the white-owned department stores that routinely discriminated against African Americans.

Walker was an outspoken opponent of lynching and of discrimination against African Americans and women. As such she fought vigorously to eradicate all forms of discrimination. She was among the four black bank presidents who organized and led a nine-month boycott of Richmond's newly segregated streetcars in 1904. She spearheaded the 1920 voter registration drives after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Walker ran on the Lily Black Republican ticket in Virginia in 1921 as a candidate for superintendent of public instruction. Another prominent name on the ticket was the firebrand editor of the Richmond Planet, John Mitchell, Jr., who ran as a candidate for governor. (No candidate on the Lily Black Republican ticket was elected.) In November 1917 she cofounded the Richmond chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and became its first vice president. She was elected in 1924 as a member of the national board of directors. She also served on the boards of the National Association of Colored Women, the Virginia Interracial Commission, and the Negro Organization Society of Virginia.

Believing that education was the best means of leveling the economic and social playing field for African Americans, Walker worked tirelessly with Mary McLeod Bethune, Janie Porter Barrett, Nannie Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and other nationally known educators to ensure quality education for black children. She contributed generously to the schools founded by each of these women.

Walker's health gradually declined, and by 1928 she was using a wheelchair. She equipped her home with an elevator and altered her Packard car to accommodate her wheelchair so she could continue to work. She died at her home on East Leigh Street in Richmond. Her home was designated a National Historic Site on 15 July 1979, the anniversary of her birth. Never giving up or allowing society or circumstances to “circumscribe” her sphere, Walker widened the arena of opportunity for all people in education, business, and politics.


The Walker Papers, which include speeches, diaries, and letters, are in the Archives, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Richmond, Va. These primary sources provide the best and most complete information. They include Gertrude Marlow, “Ransom for Many: Life of Maggie Lena Walker,” an unpublished comprehensive study of Walker's life conducted for the National Park Service, and Walker's “Stumbling Blocks Speech” (1904). In 1927, Walker's former classmate and co-leader of the 1883 school strike, Wendell P. Dabney, wrote Maggie L. Walker: Her Life and Deeds as part tribute and part biography. A useful biography of Maggie Walker written for young readers is Muriel M. Branch and Dorothy M. Rice, Pennies to Dollars: The Story of Maggie Lena Walker (1997). Our Inspiration: The Story of Maggie Lena Walker (1998), a television documentary written by William H. Sydnor, Jr., and produced by PBS station WCVE, is also a valuable source of information.