Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Maggie Walker, First Woman To Open A Bank

February 16, 2017  |  

The daughter of a former slave and a butler (her biological father was an Irish-American man), Maggie Walker (1864-1934) bore witness to the large disparities between the lives of Blacks and Whites in Richmond, Virginia. Instead of allowing it to hold her back, Walker devoted a majority of her life to the cause of uplifting and empowering Black people. She worked within her community to help build businesses and opportunities and educated the youth in the hopes of making them socially conscious when it came to the realities of what was going on in the world around them. Her work has made her quite the historical figure in the state of Virginia. Check out five things you should know about Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman of any race to charter a bank.

She Got Her Start in Activism While Delivering Laundry From Her Poor Black Neighborhood to White Neighborhoods

After the death of her father (police said he drowned himself, the family believed he was murdered), Maggie’s mother started a laundry business to help keep a roof over the family’s head. Maggie, just a child at the time, was on delivery duty, taking the clean laundry to White customers. While delivering to their communities, she first noticed just how large the gap was in the quality of life for Black people and Whites. Soon after, specifically in her teenage years, she would take the first steps to helping to change things.

She Started Working to Empower Blacks Financially and Socially as a Teen

At 14, Maggie joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization that helped the sick and elderly, did humanitarian work and was focused on the advancement of Black people financially and socially. She would soon advance through the ranks and be voted into the grand deputy matron position. She had come a long way from her delegate beginnings to having a top leadership position in the fraternal organization.

She Started a Newspaper, a Department Store and Bank to Help the Community

Even before she was voted into the grand deputy matron position, Maggie did a great deal for the Independent Order of St. Luke, including creating a youth group to uplift young African Americans. After she was promoted, she helped keep the organization from filing bankruptcy, creating a publication called the St. Luke Herald in 1902. It was distributed to local chapters and aided in educational work. Soon after, she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which she was president of until 1929, making her the first woman of any race to charter a bank. She also created the St. Luke Emporium in 1905, a department store that created a host of jobs for Blacks in the community and provided them with more options for goods, and at a cheaper price.

She Kept the Iconic St. Luke Penny Savings Bank Thriving During the Great Depression

The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank thrived under Maggie’s leadership. By 1924, it served more than 50,000 and had 1,500 local chapters. When the Great Depression hit, she was able to keep it afloat by merging the bank with two others in 1929. Maggie would go on to become the chairman of the board of directors for the merging, which turned her beloved Penny Savings Bank into the iconic Consolidated Bank and Trust Company in Richmond.

She Has Been Honored in Many Ways for Her Work in Virginia

Maggie had quite the impact on Richmond, so in her honor, quite a few memorials were set up. Richmond Public Schools set up the Maggie L. Walker High School, which became one of the few schools for Black students when Virginia was segregating learning institutions. It went through a major overhaul at one point and was reopened in 2001 as the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies. Also, her former home in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, a.k.a., the “Harlem of the South,” was made into a National Historic Site by the National Parks Service. They made it into a museum that commemorates her life and features original pieces that were in her home in the ’30s. Even the former St. Luke Penny Savings Bank building, which held Maggie’s office and the offices for the Independent Order were preserved. And if that’s not enough, a memorial for her on Broad Street is reportedly in the works.



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