Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie L. Walker


DJ Name: Now Walker It Out

Maggie L. Walker was born with no money in the bank, and perhaps that’s what inspired her to open up her own bank, the very first woman of any race to helm such a financial institution. As a Black woman in ye olde Virginia, Maggie L’s bank stood as a symbol of Black self-help in the Commonwealth, and she helped not just fellow Black adults but also children invest their money early on so they could accrue wealth throughout their lives. 

More than just a money maker, Maggie L was also dedicated to advancing the Civil Rights movement, worked as a newspaper editor and was a proud member of a fraternal burial society (this one wasn’t the kind with keg stands, we don’t think). But besides that stacked resume, Maggie also had more than a few favorite tunes that she enjoyed shuffling up while gettin’ that paperrrrr.

Maggie Lena Walker was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia, on July 15, 1864 to her enslaved mother, Elizabeth Draper, and Irish-born Confederate soldier and nurse, Eccles Cuthbert. They weren’t married. After the Civil War, which officially ended just a year after her birth, Maggie’s mom began working as a laundress – AKA a woman who’s employed to wash and iron a household’s clothes and linens. Before, her mom served as an assistant cook in the Church Hill mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, who had been a spy in Richmond (the Confederate capital) for the Union during the Civil War, and later became Richmond’s postmaster. She then went on to create the vegan delicacy, Van Leeuwen’s ice cream, except maybe not hehe. 

In 1868, Maggie’s mom married William Mitchell, who worked as a butler in a popular Richmond hotel (we’re pretty sure it wasn’t The Graduate but we also can’t not say it wasn’t The Graduate). He helped raise Maggie until his untimely death when she was a kid in 1876 leaving Mama Lizzie to raise Maggie and her little brother, John, on her own. His death was ruled a suicide, but later on Maggie would say that she was preeeetty sure he was murdered *side eye emoji*. Li’l Mags went on to attend the newly formed Richmond Public Schools in the emerging Jim Crow South, while also helping her mom wash and deliver clean clothes. 

Maggie walker’d across the stage and collected her diploma from the Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883 and began working as a teacher. She resigned after three years because she married Armstead Walker, a successful brick maker, in 1886 and apparently married women were prohibited from teaching. Rude. Together, Maggie, Armstead, and their two sons lived at 110 ½ East Leigh Street, which was a home built in 1883 in the heart of Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond’s African American business and social life. The home was purchased by the National Park Service in 1979 and you can ~visit~ it today. Which conveniently leads us to today’s sponsor! The National Park Service! Rumor has it NPS peeps are major Historic Shuffle geeks. 

OK now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Backtracking a bit, Maggie made ministerial moves when she was 14, joining the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke, which was a fraternal burial society (so yeah, def no kegstands). As a member, she ministered to the elderly and the sick, as well as promoted humanitarian causes and encouraged individual self help. She took part in the frat (we’re just gonna call it that, don’t @ us) for decades, even serving as its top leader, the Right Worthy Grand Secretary, from when she was 35 all the way to her death. Since she had a ton of free time she wasn’t used to after retiring from teacher lyfe, Maggie threw herself into this work to save an organization on the verge of bankruptcy with a declining membership. Right Worthy indeed. Under her watch, what started out as a dying frat became thriving and financially sound throughout the 1900s. 

Maggie’s mission was to better her community and increase access to areas of life such as employment, education and banks for Black people that were otherwise blocked because of segregation. In 1902, two years after she became Right Worthy, Maggie made media moves and established a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald to allow for better communication between the frat and the pub (that means public, not the place where the other kind of frat people hang out). Following that, Maggie made money moves and opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and a department store, St. Luke Emporium. She served as the first President of St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, where she said “penny for your thoughts? Or maybe even a savings account?” which earned her the recognition as the first woman of any race to charter a bank in the U.S. 

Less focused on individual success and more interested in breaking down barriers that blocked the Black community in Richmond, Maggie employed a workforce of mainly Black women to work as accountants, journalists, secretaries and more which earned them higher wages and were way less laborious jobs than those of a laundress, a maid or a cook. According to her former secretary, Alice Gilliam, Walker was a strict leader with high expectations. They worked long hours, followed a dress code, and were encouraged to save 5% of their earnings. All the hard work eventually paid off when The Washington Bee, an African American newspaper, published a story about the financial success and renowned impact the bank had on African Americans in Richmond, which encouraged even more people (even kids!) to open accounts. Maggie said “Show me the money!” and the people listened. 

With a keen eye for keeping up with deposits at the bank, Maggie noticed that the rate was slowing. Though the bank included more than 50,000 members and expanded beyond Virginia, Maggie was ready to make potential merger moves with two other Black-owned banks in RVA, Second Street Savings Bank and Commercial Bank and Trust. While other banks crashed during the Great Depression, Penny Savings thrived because by 1931, the three banks merged to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust. Maggie served as Chairperson of the Board of Directors until her death. 

Maggie’s health began to decline in the 1930s but despite her physical limitations she remained an active leader and committed to her mission of bettering the Black community in Richmond until her death on December 15, 1934. Maggie Walker was credited with saying, “The greatest privilege a human being has is to be able to do a good deed for some other human being each day,” and that she did.

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