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Maggie Lena Walker, Photograph Portrait , 1898

Context

Maggie Lena Walker was an African American banker, business women and civic leader who overcame adversary and discriminatory laws by becoming the first woman, white or black, to establish and become the president of a bank in the United States. Walker was born in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother Elizabeth Draper was a former slave who worked as an assistant cook for Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy white woman, abolitionist, and spy for the Union during the Civil War. While working at the Van Lew estate, Draper met an Irish American abolitionist writer, Eccles Cuthbert, who became Maggie’s biological father. Draper later married William Mitchell, a butler at the Van Lew estate. The two had a son together in 1870, Maggie’s half-brother Johnnie. Maggie went to school in Richmond at the Lancaster School and later graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883 to become a teacher. Following graduation she returned to the Lancaster School and taught for three years until she married Armstead Walker, Jr. in 1886. Due to a school policy, standard for the time, Maggie Walker retired from teaching once she was married.

In 1881, Walker joined the Independent Order of Saint Luke, a fraternal organization. After she left the Lancaster School, she rose through the ranks of the organization and used her position to encourage young African Americans to continue their education and serve the community. When she became president of the organization, it was debt-ridden and on the verge of bankruptcy, but Walker transformed it to a well-resourced entity, and within five years the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank opened for business. When the bank was opened Walker encouraged young African Americans to begin saving and investing in banks early so their funds would grow and they could enjoy economic independence from white employers.

After the economic downturn during the Great Depression, Walker and the other bank leaders were forced to merge with two other banks to become Consolidated Bank and Trust. In the later years of life, Walker was faced with health issues that confined her to a wheelchair, but this did not slow her down. Walker remained president of her bank until December 15, 1934 when she died from diabetic gangrene. Today Maggie Walker's former home at 110 ½ East Leigh Street is a National Historic Landmark (designated in 1979) and is maintained by the National Park Service. In her honor, a statue and plaza were also placed on Richmond's Broad Street. 

Citations: Branch, M. M. Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934). (2013, December 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Maggie_Lena_Walker_1864-1934 [viewed 2 September 2015] Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934). In Virginia Memory. Retrieved from http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/shaping_the_constitution/people/maggie_lena_walker [viewed 2 September 2015] The progress of colored women / by Mary Church Terrell, Washington, D.C.: Smith Brothers, Printers . . ., [1898] Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Daniel A.P. Murray Pamphlets Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/lcrbmrp.t0a13

 

Standards

VS.1, VS.9, USII.1, USII.4, VUS.1, VUS.8

Suggested Questions

In Their Shoes: What are some ways that Maggie Walker overcame adversary and discriminatory laws to become a successful business women and civic leader?

Artistic Exploration:  Examine the photograph of Maggie Lena Walker as well as the legend at the bottom of the image.  From your perspective, what can you conclude about Walker from her posture, dress, and facial expression?  What also does the legend at the bottom of her photograph imply?

Comments

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