Who Was Maggie Lena Walker?
Maggie Lena Walker was the first Black woman to serve as the president of a bank in the United States. For decades she was also the head of a fraternal society that sought to offer Black people financial and community security at a time when racially-biased insurance premiums and other forms of discrimination were the norms. She also founded a newspaper that spoke out about civil rights abuses.
Walker holds a vaunted place in the history of women-owned banks in the United States. The bank she founded, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va.—later known as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company—was at one point the longest continually Black-operated bank in the country, according to historical information from the state of Virginia. Walker’s house was turned into a national historic landmark in 1975 and purchased by the National Park Service in 1979. Her statue, located in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, once known as the “Harlem of the South,” was the city’s first to recognize a woman.
- Maggie Lena Walker was notable as a civic leader, the founder of a newspaper, and an officer of the Order of St. Luke’s fraternal society.
- She lived and worked during the Jim Crow era in Richmond, Va., which had been the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
- She’s most remembered as the first Black woman to found a bank, where she served as president for many years.
- The bank she founded, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, would become one of the longest continually Black-operated banks in the United States.
Early Life and Education
Born to a formerly enslaved mother, Elizabeth Draper, and a White Irish immigrant father, Eccles Cuthbert, on July 15, 1864, during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, Maggie Lena Walker—born Maggie Draper—would go on to play a central role in advancing the Black community during the peak of Jim Crow before her death in 1934 from complications from diabetes.
Cuthbert, a reporter for the New York Herald, and Draper would, by law, have been unable to marry, and there is no record that they did. However, soon after the birth, Draper married William Mitchell, the Black butler for the house where she worked as a cook. The couple had a son, Johnnie Mitchell, in 1870. The marriage ended with William Mitchell’s death in 1876. Though ruled a suicide, his wife insisted that he had been murdered.
Walker attended public schools for Black children in Richmond, which were new at the time. She went to the Lancasterian School, the Navy Hill School, and the Richmond Colored Normal School, graduating in 1883, and she would teach for a time at Lancasterian. However, once she married Armstead Walker Jr., a builder, on Sept. 14, 1886, she had to stop because of a policy that forbade married women from teaching. The couple had three sons, one of whom died in infancy, and an adopted daughter.
Walker lived and worked in an era when basic rights for Black Americans were under attack by segregation and other forms of racist repression, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Her life and work also coincided with active periods of the domestic terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan and violence against freed Black people. In Virginia during Walker’s lifetime, for instance, the Klan was responsible for beatings, floggings, kidnappings, and lynchings. In this climate, Walker used her bank to empower women and the emerging Black middle class in Richmond, a city that had been the capital of the Confederacy only decades before her career began.
Walker was the first Black woman to found a bank in the U.S. While female bank presidents were not entirely unheard of at the time, historians say, the others were White and members of the upper class. Walker, as both a Black woman and someone without access to inherited wealth, had to conquer daunting challenges in her path to success. Notably, her achievement was “wholly unique within the Black community,” according to accounts of her life.
Independent Order of St. Luke
While a student, Walker had become involved with the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal organization that aimed to educate and improve the material conditions of life for Black people in the segregated American South. She would rise to the society’s highest position, grand secretary, by 1899, a position she would hold until her death.
The order was on the brink of bankruptcy when Walker took the helm. In 1901 she revealed her plans to save it, which included founding a newspaper and a bank. The society flourished under her leadership. By 1924, the organization had over 50,000 members and 1,500 local chapters, according to some historical summaries.
'The St. Luke Herald'
Walker started a newspaper, The St. Luke Herald, in 1902. The publication was meant to inform the Independent Order of St. Luke’s members and it would remain active until the Great Depression took a toll on the membership of the order, which funded the paper’s operations.
Walker was conscious of the role of mass communication in creating an informed membership, as well as the importance of access to information in creating a successful Black community. In her 1901 proposal for the paper, Walker said that it would be “a trumpet to sound the orders, so that the St. Luke upon the mountain top, and the St. Luke dwelling by the side of the sea, can hear the same order, keep step to the same music, march in unison to the same command, although miles and miles intervene.”
Historians note that the Herald was also active in writing about civil rights abuses. The paper wrote pro–civil rights editorials, for instance, that took a stand against the Virginia Constitutional Convention’s 1902 inclusion of literacy tests and poll taxes to block Black voters, as well as against the 1904 segregation of Richmond’s trolley system.
Founding a bank
Walker’s bank was founded “from scratch,” according to historical accounts, without access to preexisting financial or structural advantages. Walker thought that a savings bank would counter segregationist policies, loan discrimination, and other forms of racism, kindling economic independence within the Black community. “Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves,” she said at the annual convention of the Independent Order of St. Luke, where she outlined her plan for the bank. “Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
The Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in Richmond in 1903 and was massively successful. It had facilitated more than 600 mortgages to Black families by 1920. However, Walker’s bank was not the only Black-owned bank in Richmond. Five such banks opened in the city between 1888 and 1920. Still, as a result of the bank, Walker received membership in the Virginia Banker’s Association, something not given to other Black bank presidents.
The bank would survive the Great Depression and in 1929 it consolidated with a couple of other Black-owned banks in the city. It was bought out by Abigail Adams National Bank in 2009, at which point it was no longer Black-owned. Under the name of Premier Bank, it is still in business today.
What Is Maggie Lena Walker Best Known For?
Maggie Lena Walker is best known as the first Black woman to found and run a bank in the United States. She did this in Richmond, Va., the former seat of power for the Confederacy, during the very peak of Jim Crow. She also started a newspaper that wrote editorials against civil rights violations.
What Is Maggie Lena Walker’s Historical Importance?
She played a major role in building up the Black middle class in Richmond during the era of Jim Crow. In addition to being the first Black woman to found a bank, she was also a long-serving right worthy grand secretary, the highest leadership position, for the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal burial society.
Who Were Maggie Lena Walker’s Family?
Maggie Lena Walker was born to parents who were denied marriage by race laws in the state of Virginia. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, had been enslaved. Her biological father, Eccles Cuthbert, was a White Irish immigrant who was a reporter for the New York Herald. Anti-miscegenation laws, such as the one that forbade Maggie’s parents from marrying, would remain firmly in place until finally being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia.
Draper did eventually marry William Mitchell, the Black butler for the household where she worked as a cook. They had a son named Jonnie who was six years younger than his half-sister.
At the age of 22, in 1886, Maggie Draper Mitchell married Armstead Walker Jr., a Black man whose family had a construction business. The couple would go on to have three sons—Russell Eccles Talmadge Walker, Armstead Mitchell Walker (who died in infancy), and Melvin DeWitt Walker—and adopt a daughter, Polly Anderson.
The Bottom Line
Walker was the first Black woman to found a bank in the United States, a feat she accomplished during a period of extreme racism and sexism in the former capital of the Confederacy. Her successes—which surmounted obstacles of class, race, and gender—are considered exceptional and unique in American history.