Maggie Lena Walker was one of Richmond, Virginia’s most prominent Black businesswomen and is the first Black woman named as President of a banking institution. Along with that achievement, Ms. Walker was involved in several measures aimed at bettering the lives of African-Americans overall and women in particular.
Born July 14, 1864, Walker’s mother was a former slave and cook who worked on the estate of abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, a former spy for the Union during the Civil War. Walker’s biological father was an Irishman, but she was adopted by butler and writer, William Mitchell, according to some accounts.
Walker’s early education took place in the small, segregated schools of the Deep South. After graduating, she became a schoolteacher. During her school years, Walker joined a Black fraternal burial society, the Independent Order of St. Luke.
Walker’s work with the Order consisted of working with the sick and aged, providing other Blacks in the Richmond area with financial opportunities, and aiding in humanitarian causes. Rising to the rank of Grand Worthy Right Secretary, Walker held the prominent position until her death.
It was with the Order that Walker’s business savvy blossomed. In 1902, she established the Order’s newspaper in order to promote the aims of the organization. Walker believed then that pooling financial resources was key in moving Blacks forward. The following year, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.
While many banks floundered during the Great Depression, Walker was able to save Penny Savings by merging with two other banks. After the merger, Walker was named the chairperson of the bank collective and remained so until her death.
The coalition of banks, better known as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, was the largest minority-owned bank in the nation until it dissolved in 2009.
Walker also opened a department store in Richmond. Black women found employment in the store, and the community’s poor benefited from its fair prices. Walker was known for her work in women’s rights, serving on the board of trustees for groups such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the Virginia Industrial School for Girls. She was also a member of the local NAACP and was on its national board.
After marrying Armstead Walker Jr. in 1886, her husband, a brick contractor, earned a high enough salary that allowed Walker to raise their two sons and tend to Order affairs. However, Walker’s husband was tragically killed in 1915 by their son Russell after he mistook his father for an intruder. Though the tragedy inspired Walker to work harder on behalf of the Order, she developed diabetes and her health declined.
Near the end of her life, though Walker was unable to walk as her diabetes worsened, she remained an advocate for equal rights for women.
Walker died in 1934 at the age of 70. Her Richmond home was named a National Historic Site in the ’70’s and was made into a museum in 1985.
(Photo: National Park Service)