To commemorate Black History Month, we are honored to pay tribute to a pioneer in the financial industry who blazed a unique trail — Maggie Walker, 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 she participated in the fight for civil rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These are applause-worthy accomplishments under any circumstances but they’re even more remarkable when considering the challenges this incredibly resilient woman faced, beginning with her birth.
On July 15, 1867, a formerly enslaved teenager named Elizabeth Draper gave birth to a baby girl in Richmond, Virginia, whom she named Maggie Lena. The Civil War had only been over for two years, and former slaveholders still burned with resentment over its outcome, the ashes of defeat still smoldering. It was an exceptionally difficult time for a young Black mother and her baby girl to make their way in the world.
Most sources state that her father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish American newspaper reporter. Cuthbert was a former Confederate soldier, and it is suggested that he became an abolitionist after meeting Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. It was at Van Lew’s home where he met Elizabeth Draper, who worked there as a cook. The relationship with Cuthbert was reportedly consensual, but the two could not marry because Virginia laws at that time forbade interracial marriage. Draper later married William Mitchell, the butler on the Van Lew estate.
It’s hard to imagine a more challenging start to life.
Young Maggie used her stepfather’s last name, Mitchell. After his untimely death, Walker worked alongside her mother as a washerwoman once she was old enough to help, and the two also joined the Independent Order of St. Luke. This organization served as a mutual-benefit society that provided key services to Black people after the war, helping to provide them with funds for education, insurance, and other financial needs.
Surely this organization inspired Walker in her future career.
Walker graduated from the Armstrong Normal School in 1883, and it’s reported that her birth father, who continued to live nearby, sent her a dress as a graduation gift. Elizabeth is said to have burned the dress.
Walker then taught at Lancaster School in Richmond for three years before marrying Armstead Walker, Jr. on September 14, 1886, at the First African Baptist Church. He came from an upper-middle-class Black family that owned a brick contracting business and he helped his brother run the business while also working at the post office.
In that era, married women could not work as teachers, so Walker had to leave her job. She spent time working at the Independent Order of St. Luke, the organization that had previously helped her. Walker and Armstead had three sons between the years of 1890 and 1897, and a distant female relative of his also came to live with them. Sadly, their second son died before he reached his first birthday.
Although the family couldn’t have known it at the time, a second tragedy would await them on June 20, 1915. On that day their oldest son, Russell, thought a burglar was trying to break in through the back door. He shot a pistol through the screen, killing his father, Armstead. He was tried for murder but was found not guilty.
“Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.” — Maggie Walker
At the Independent Order of St. Luke, Walker worked in several different offices until she became the secretary/treasurer of the organization in 1899. At the time, 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, “The St. Luke Herald,” in 1902, where she 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, thereby becoming the first U.S. Black woman to do so. What’s especially remarkable is that when she became the bank’s president women couldn’t even vote—and wouldn’t have that right for another 17 years.
Fast forward the story of the bank by 21 years, and the main office now employed 50 people, with more than 50,000 members in 1,500 chapters. During that period of growth, Virginia Union University — a Richmond university that is historically Black — awarded Walker a well-deserved honorary master’s degree.
During 1929 and 1930, when financial institutions across the nation were struggling after the devastating 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 chairperson of the board and also helped raise funds for worthy organizations.
Walker was a member of the National Association of Colored Women and, for the Richmond chapter, she served as vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Maggie Lena Walker died on December 15, 1934, at the age of 67. 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 14-18 who attend schools in the greater Richmond area.
Program participants include students who are part of underserved communities, with a 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.