Born into poverty, with no college education, Maggie Lena Walker overcame obstacles to fulfill her dream of entrepreneurship. She became the first female founder and president of a charter bank in the United States. Maggie Lena Walker was also the grand secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans.
Who Was Maggie Lena Walker?
Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934) graduated from school in 1883, having been trained as a teacher. She married a brick contractor in 1886 and left her teaching job, at which point she became more active within the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. In 1899, Walker became the grand secretary of the organization — a position that she would hold for the rest of her life. During her tenure, she founded the organization’s newspaper and opened a highly successful bank and a department store. By the time she died, on December 15, 1934, Walker had turned the nearly bankrupt organization into a profitable and effective one.
Walker was born Maggie Lena Draper on July 15, 1864, in Richmond Virginia. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a formerly enslaved person, and the assistant cook for Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist on whose estate Walker was born. Walker’s biological father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish American who had met Elizabeth on the Van Lew estate. The two were never married, and shortly after Walker’s birth, Elizabeth married William Mitchell, the butler of the estate. In 1870, the Mitchells had a child, Walker’s half-brother Johnnie.
Soon thereafter, William obtained a job as the headwaiter at the St. Charles Hotel in Richmond, and the family moved away from the estate and into a small house of their own. Tragedy struck, however, when in 1876 William was found drowned in the river. His death was ruled a suicide by police, though Elizabeth maintained that he had been murdered. William’s death left Elizabeth and her children in poverty. To make ends meet, Elizabeth began a laundry business, with which Walker assisted by delivering clean laundry to their white patrons. It was during this time that she first developed an awareness of the gap between the quality of life for white people and Black people in the United States — a gap that she would soon devote her life to narrowing.
The Independent Order of St. Luke
In her teens, Walker attended the Lancaster School and, later, the Richmond Colored Normal School, both institutions dedicated to the education of African Americans. While attending the latter, she also joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal organization dedicated to the advancement of African Americans in both financial and social standing.
Walker graduated in 1883, having completed her training as a teacher. She returned to the Lancaster School to teach and remained there until 1886, when she married Armstead Walker Jr., a brick contractor, and was forced to leave her job, due to the school’s policy against married teachers. Over the next decade, Walker’s life was split between family and her work for the Order of St. Luke. In 1890, she gave birth to her first son, Russell, and in 1893, Armstead, who died while still an infant.
In 1895, Walker, who had been rising quickly through the ranks of the Order, became grand deputy matron. She also established a youth arm of the order to inspire social consciousness in young African Americans. In 1897, Walker gave birth to another son, Melvin, and two years later, became the Order of St. Luke’s grand secretary.
When Walker assumed control of the Order of St. Luke, the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy. In a speech she gave in 1901, she outlined her plans to save it, and in the coming years, she would follow through on each item she had described. In 1902, Walker founded the St. Luke Herald to carry news of the Order of St. Luke to local chapters and to help with its educational work. The following year, she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (of which she would remain president until 1929). In 1905, she opened the St. Luke Emporium, a department store that offered African American women opportunities for work and gave the Black community access to cheaper goods.
In the midst of all of these accomplishments, however, tragedy visited Walker once more: In 1915, Russell Walker, mistaking his father for an intruder, shot and killed him as he was returning home one night. Russell was tried for murder but was found innocent. Also around this time, Walker developed diabetes. Yet this did not deter her in her work.
In 1921, Walker ran for the seat of the superintendent of public instruction on the Republican ticket, though she was defeated along with the other Black Republican candidates. Her work for the Order of St. Luke, however, was meeting with much more favorable results.
Walker served as the bank’s first president, which earned her the recognition of being the first Black 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 esteemed Black-owned institution.
In 1905, Walker was featured alongside other African American leaders, such as Mary Church Terrell, T. Thomas Fortune, and George Washington Carver in a poster titled, “101 Prominent Colored People”.
Walker’s social change activities with the Independent Order of St. Luke demonstrated her keen consciousness of oppression and her dedication to challenging racial and gender injustice.
By 1924, under Walker’s continued leadership, the bank served a membership of more than 50,000 in 1,500 local chapters. Additionally, she managed to keep the bank alive during the Great Depression, despite the fact that many were failing, by merging it with two other banks in 1929.
Death and Legacy
For the last few years of her life, Walker was confined to a wheelchair and continued to suffer from her diabetic condition, and on December 15, 1934, at age 70, she died from complications of the disease. She was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond. In 1979, her home on East Leigh Street, in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, known as the “Harlem of the South,” was purchased by the National Park Service and became a National Historic Site.
- Biography.com Editors
- PBS Learning Media
- E. B. Brown, Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke, Signs, 14, 3 (1989), 610-633;
- Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe, A Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Empowerment (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 2003)
- Schiele, J. H., M. S. Jackson, & C. N. Fairfax (2005). “Maggie Lena Walker and African American Community Development”. Journal of Women and Social Work. 20: 26, 35.
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