Black History Month – Celebrating the Legacy and Accomplishments of Maggie Walker
“Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.” — Maggie Walker
February 2, 2022
In honor of Black History Month, we pay tribute to a pioneer in the financial industry who blazed a unique trail. Maggie Walker was the first Black woman to found and lead a bank in the United States. She also contributed to the fields of education and philanthropy, and participated in the fight for civil rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Read on to learn more about Walker’s life, as well as her legacy in the world of finance.
Maggie Lena Walker was born on July 15, 1867. Her mother, a formerly enslaved teenager named Elizabeth Draper, gave birth to her baby girl in Richmond, Virginia.
The exact identity of Walker's biological father is unknown. Some historians indicate her father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-American newspaper reporter. Cuthbert was a former Confederate soldier. It’s believed he became an abolitionist after meeting Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew.
At Van Lew's home, he met Elizabeth Draper, who worked there as a cook, and Maggie would soon arrive out of that relationship. Draper later married William Mitchell, the butler on the Van Lew estate. Young Maggie used her stepfather's last name, Mitchell.
Once she was old enough, Walker worked alongside her mother as a washerwoman once she was old enough to help. At the same time, the two joined the Independent Order of St. Luke.
The Independent Order of St. Luke served as a mutual-aid organization providing key services to African Americans after the war. Over its history, the organization transformed from a burial society to fraternal order and a life insurance company. Its goal was to provide aid in financing and community building.
Walker graduated from the Armstrong Normal School in 1883. The story has it that her birth father, who continued to live nearby, sent her a dress as a graduation gift, and Draper is said to have burned the dress.
After graduation, Walker taught at Lancaster School in Richmond for three years. On September 14, 1886, Walker married Armstead Walker, Jr. at the First African Baptist Church.
Armstead Walker came from an upper-middle-class Black family that owned a brick contracting business. He helped his brother run the business while also working at the post office.
The Walkers had three sons between 1890 and 1897, and adopted a daughter named Polly Anderson. Sadly, their second son died before he reached his first birthday.
At the time, married women were not allowed to work as teachers. Walker would soon leave her teaching role and go back to the Independent Order of St. Luke. Little did she know, she’d work with the order for the next two decades, transforming its mission and community.
At the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), Walker worked in several different offices until she became the secretary/treasurer of the organization in 1899. The organization was in debt, despite having 3,400 members in 57 different local chapters.
Walker had already demonstrated her ability to work hard, and now her business abilities came to the forefront. She started a newspaper for the IOSL, called the St. Luke Herald in 1902. The paper shared news about the local chapters and offered tips on how to teach children to be clean, hard-working and thrifty.
The following year, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, serving as the president, becoming the first U.S. Black woman to do so. At that time, women couldn’t even vote — and wouldn’t have that right for another 17 years.
Under Walker’s leadership, the offerings of IOSL expanded. It helped that Walker was a skilled public speaker with the uncanny ability to reach out and connect with attendees at conventions and large meetings. Her constant refrain was that of inspiration and self-determination. She believed in education and the power of equal opportunity for all. Part of that was financial education and empowering everyone to make their own choices.
Walker’s hard work was reflected in the growth of IOSL. Two decades into her work at the organization, the main office employed 50 people, with more than 50,000 members in 1,500 chapters. As a leader at the IOSL, she was dedicated to uplifting the Black community, and women, making an effort to employ Black women in organizational roles as much as she possibly could.
Recognizing her role in IOSL’s tremendous growth, Virginia Union University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), awarded Walker an honorary master’s degree.
During 1929 and 1930, when financial institutions across the nation were struggling after the stock market crash, the Penny Savings Bank combined all Black-owned banks in Richmond to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. At this point, Walker became the board’s chairperson and helped raise funds for worthy organizations.
In addition to her work at the IOSL, Walker was a member of the National Association of Colored Women. She served as vice president of the NAACP’s Richmond chapter.
Remembering Maggie Walker
Maggie Lena Walker died on December 15, 1934, at 67. At the time, the crowds at her funeral were some of the largest in Richmond history. Shortly following her passing, the city of Richmond dedicated a high school in Walker’s name.
Her home was designated as a national historic landmark in 1975. A National Park Foundation grant supports the Maggie L. Walker NHS Summer Youth Leadership Institute, a two-week program for youth ages 14 to 18 who attend schools in the greater Richmond area.
Program participants include students who are part of underserved communities, with the curriculum having two focuses: introducing participants to park resources and to the admirable legacy of Maggie Walker. We salute Maggie Lena Walker for her numerous accomplishments and the legacy she left for us all.