Maggie Lena Walker was an African-American teacher and businesswoman. Walker was the first African American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States. As a leader, she achieved success with the vision to make tangible improvements in the way of life for African Americans and women. Disabled by paralysis and limited to a wheelchair later in life, Walker also became an example for people with disabilities.
Walker’s restored and furnished home in the historic Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia has been designated a National Historic Site, operated by the National Park Service.
According to biographical material she supplied, Walker was born as Maggie Lena Mitchell in Richmond, Virginia, to Eccles Cuthbert and Elizabeth Draper Mitchell two years and two months after the end of the American Civil War. Census information, as well as a diary passage saying that she was four years old on her mother’s wedding in May 1868, with William Mitchell, set the date back to 1864 or 1865. Her mother was a former slave and an assistant cook in the Church Hill mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, who had been a spy in the Confederate capital city of Richmond for the Union during the War, and was later postmaster for Richmond. Her stepfather was a butler and her biological father was a Confederate soldier and a postwar writer for the New York Herald.
The Mitchell family moved to their own home on College Alley off of Broad Street nearby Miss Van Lew’s home where Maggie and her brother Johnnie were raised. The house was near the First African Baptist Church which, like many black churches at the time, was an economic, political, and social center for the local black community. After the untimely death of William Mitchell, Maggie’s mother supported her family by working as a laundress. Young Maggie attended the newly formed Richmond Public Schools and helped her mother by delivering the clean clothes.
When she was fourteen years old, young Maggie joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke. This fraternal burial society, established in 1867 in Baltimore, Maryland, ministered to the sick and aged, promoted humanitarian causes, and encouraged individual self-help and integrity. She served in numerous capacities of increasing responsibility for the Order, from that of a delegate to the biannual convention to the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, a position she held until she died.
In 1902, she published a newspaper for the organization, The St. Luke Herald. Shortly after, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Walker served as the bank’s first president, which earned her the recognition of being the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States. The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank’s leadership also included several female board members. Later Walker agreed to serve as chairman of the board of directors when the bank merged with two other Richmond banks to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which grew to serve generations of Richmonders as an African-American owned institution.
Walker received an honorary master’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1925 and was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2001.
In Walker’s honor Richmond Public Schools built a large brick high school adjacent to Virginia Union University. Maggie L. Walker High School was one of two schools in the area for black students, during the period of racial segregation in schools; the other was Armstrong High School. After generations of students spent their high-school years there, it was totally refurbished to reopen in 2001 as the regional Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies.
The St. Luke Building held the offices of the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the office of Maggie L. Walker. As late as 1981, Walker’s office was being preserved as it was at the time of her death in 1934.The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The National Park Service operates the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site at her former Jackson Ward home. In 1978 the house was designated a National Historic Site and was opened as a museum in 1985. The site states that it “commemorates the life of a progressive and talented African-American woman. She achieved success in the world of business and finance as the first woman in the United States to charter and serve as president of a bank, despite the many adversities. The site includes a visitor center detailing her life and the Jackson Ward community in which she lived and worked and her residence of thirty years. The house is restored to its 1930’s appearance with original Walker family pieces.”
Walker was honored as one of the first groups of Virginia Women in History in 2000.
On July 15, 2017, a statue of Walker, designed by Antonio Tobias Mendez was unveiled on Broad Street in Richmond.The bronze, 10-foot statue shows a depiction of how she lived, with her glasses pinned to her lapel and a checkbook in hand.
Walker taught grade school for three years until 1886, when, that same year, on September 14, 1886, in Richmond, she married Armstead Walker, Jr. (1860–1915), a brick contractor. Armstead earned a good living, and she was able to leave teaching to take care of her family and work with the Independent Order of St. Luke, which she founded in 1903. Maggie and Armstead purchased a home in 1904. They had four children: (i)Mary Polly Walker (1885–1967), who married H. Maurice Payne; (ii) Russell Eccles Talmadge Walker (1890–1923); (iii) Armstead Mitchell Walker (1893–1894); and (iv) Melvin DeWitt Walker (1897–1935).
On June 20, 1914, Maggie’s son, Russell Walker, at age 25, shot and killed his father, Armstead, having mistaken him for a burglar, for whom both he and his father had been searching. Russell was arrested and charged with murder and, after five months awaiting trial, was declared innocent.
The loss left Maggie to manage a large household. Her work and investments kept the family comfortably situated. When her sons married they brought their wives to 1101⁄2 East Leigh Street, her home in Richmond’s Jackson Ward district, the center of Richmond’s African-American business and social life around the start of the 20th century.
Russell, however, never recovered from the incident and after eight years battling depression and alcoholism, died November 23, 1923.