Life Story: Maggie Walker (1864-1934)

This resource has been adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum.

Portrait of Maggie Walker, the first Black woman bank president in the United States, who advocated for her community in Richmond, Virginia. Walker is standing with one hand resting on a chair. She wears a long dress made of dark fabric and has an assortment of jewelry.
Maggie Walker

Studio Portrait of Maggie L. Walker, early 20th century. Courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.

Child of the Urban South

Maggie Lena Draper was born in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave who married William Mitchell after emancipation, when Maggie was a baby. William was a butler for a white family and later the headwaiter at one of Richmond’s best hotels. The family enjoyed modest financial security until William Mitchell died. Facing dire poverty, Elizabeth started a laundry business with the help of Maggie, then 9 years old. Maggie went on to become both prominent and well-off, but she later remarked, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket on my head.”

Maggie and her younger brother attended one of the city’s public primary schools for Black students. At 16, she graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School, a high school that also trained teachers, and promptly joined other students to protest the city’s policy of holding separate graduation ceremonies for white and Black students. “Our parents pay taxes just the same as you white folks,” they argued. Within a few months, she was a teacher at one of the African American schools in the city.

Building Community During Jim Crow

Maggie taught until 1886, when she married Armstead Walker Jr. The Richmond school district did not permit married women to teach, so she had to give up her coveted job. By then, Reconstruction had been over for nearly a decade. Without Reconstruction governments in place to protect the rights of Southern Blacks, a new system of segregation and discrimination was reestablishing white control. Known as Jim Crow, it was imposed by laws, customs, and threats that narrowed nearly every aspect of Black Americans’ lives.

In the face of Jim Crow, Black Americans had to figure out how to stay safe, support themselves, educate their children, and fight for their rights. Strategies varied. Some people brought legal suits in court. Some wrote books and editorials. Some left the South in search of better lives in the North or West. But most, including Maggie, remained in place and sought the power of community and self-reliance. Maggie’s communities were the historic Richmond First African Baptist Church and the Independent Order of Saint Luke (IOSL), an organization she discovered as a teenager, became seriously committed to after she left her teaching job, and then led for many years.

Founded in 1867, IOSL was a national association of African Americans. There were many “fraternal organizations” like this in American cities and towns. Most were dedicated to doing good works for their members or to broader charitable activities. Nearly all had elaborate titles for their leaders (Maggie’s was Right Worthy Grand Secretary) and secret rituals that bound members together. Membership in these groups was generally limited by gender, race, ethnic group, or community roles.

There is always strength and safety in numbers, but for African Americans in Richmond, the group cohesion offered by IOSL was especially important because of what was happening around them. Richmond’s white leaders were building memorials to Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue in testimony to their belief in the mythology of the Lost Cause. The monuments kept the champions and values of the old South in the foreground of the city’s life. They also reinforced racial bias and justified Jim Crow. For Richmond’s African Americans—nearly 40% of the city’s population, many of whom lived within an easy walk of the monuments—the Lost Cause meant increasingly difficult lives and a discriminatory, abusive environment.

Entrepreneur and Leader

The IOSL offered a way for Black Americans to find strength by banding together. Maggie spoke frequently to Black audiences around the country, using inspiring biblical references to describe clearly what progress could look like. In 1901 she announced a plan to start projects that would expand the IOSL’s reach and provide important services to Black Americans. She started a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, to spread the word about IOSL and speak out against racial injustice. Maggie led the IOSL for thirty-five years and increased its membership from 3,400 in 1890 to more than 70,000 in 1924.

Like many Black women at this time, Maggie had worked in domestic service and teaching. But she had the connections and capital to become a savvy businesswoman. In 1903, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming the first African American woman to start a bank in the United States and the first to serve as a bank president. Because the bank was staffed by African Americans, customers could manage their money without the unending mistreatment they encountered in white-run banks. In 1905, she opened a department store called the St. Luke Emporium. At a time when Black women faced everyday aggressions when they shopped in white-owned stores, such as being required to cover their hair with wax paper when they tried on hats, the Emporium was a welcome relief. Like the bank, it gave people a way to do everyday activities without facing white prejudice. All of these institutions employed and served local Black residents in Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond’s Black business and social life. Maggie also bought the area’s most elegant home, today a National Park Service site.

Maggie did not speak out against Monument Avenue, but she made her feelings about Jim Crow more than clear. In 1907, a few months before statues to Confederates J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis were unveiled, she delivered a speech in Richmond, denouncing segregation: “The song which the white press, the white pulpit and the white public men are singing is the song of separation. Separate public conveyances, separate schools, separate churches, separate places of amusements, separate hotels, separate depots, separate localities in which to live. ‘Separate’ is the cry daily: go to another country, get out, go away; if you want to remain here, you must be my menial, be my servant: and if you want to be what I am — a MAN — separate. Go where I can’t see you.”

Jackson Ward was always Maggie’s home turf and primary focus. But she also provided leadership in the city more broadly. Prominent American women were expected to spearhead fund-raising efforts for civic projects. In this capacity, she worked on campaigns with Janet Randolph, who was dedicated to the Lost Cause view of the South and raised money to build the monument to Jefferson Davis. The two women solicited funds for a Black ward for the local hospital, located a block away from where white patients were treated. Both were members of the executive committee of the Community House for Colored People, which provided shelter, health care, food, and economic assistance.

In addition to her local community building and job creation, Maggie was involved in nation-wide efforts to fight racism and improve opportunities for Black Americans, especially Black women. She served on the boards of the National Association of Colored Women, the Virginia Industrial School for Girls, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2017, as Americans debated the future of Confederate memorials, a bronze statue of Maggie Walker was unveiled in Jackson Ward.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Maggie Walker foster self-sufficiency in Richmond’s Black community?
  • In what ways did Maggie challenge stereotypes about African Americans and women?