Born to a former slave and an Irish-born newspaperman, Maggie Walker grew up in the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who had run a spy ring during the Civil War. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was an assistant cook in the Van Lew household.
Draper married William Mitchell, a butler in the Van Lew house. When Mitchell got a job as the head waiter at the Saint Charles Hotel, the family moved out of the Van Lew house and into a home of their own. When Walker’s father was murdered, her mother supported the family with a laundry business.
Maggie helped by doing chores like delivering the clothing her mother laundered to customers while attending Richmond Public Schools. She then attended the Lancaster School and the Colored Normal School and received her teaching diploma. For three years Walker taught at Lancaster School and studied accounting at night.
At the age of fourteen, Walker became a member of the Grand United Order of St. Luke, a fraternal and cooperative insurance company for African-Americans. The company was founded by Mary Prout, a former slave, with headquarters in Richmond.
By the time she was 34 years old, Walker had worked her way up in the organization to be elected the Right Worthy Grand Secretary-Treasurer at the 1899 convention of the Grand United Order of St. Luke, now renamed the Independent Order of St. Luke.
At the time, the Order was in debt and Walker worked for a salary of $8 a month.
But Walker was not afraid of hard work. She put her organizational and speaking abilities to use, encouraging new people to join, publishing a newsletter raising awareness of the organization and its benefits.
As a result of her efforts, by 1924, the Order had close to 100,000 members and assets of nearly $400,000. Walker organized the Juvenile Branch of the Order to encourage young people to save money and Sunshine Day, a day when youth visited the sick or took food to a needy family.
Walker’s dream of a bank owned and operated by African-Americans reached fruition on November 2, 1903 when she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. She was the first woman and the first African-American woman to found and be president of a bank in the United States.
The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was an instant success. On opening day, receipts totaled $9,430.44. People opened Christmas savings accounts and deposited a penny or a nickel a week.
In 1911, due to a law requiring banks to be separate from fraternal organizations in order to serve the public instead of private members, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank severed its ties with the St. Luke Order. Instead of hurting the Penny Savings Bank, the bank continued to prosper, loaning money to people to buy 600 homes.
In 1930, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank merged with two other black-owned banks in Richmond. It became known as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company which is still in business today. Walker was chairman of the board and is credited with being the company’s founder on the website. It is the oldest minority-owned bank in the United States.
Walker’s private life was besieged with tragedy. She married Armstead Walker, a building contractor, in 1886. They had three sons, but only two survived infancy.
Mistaking his father for an intruder, Walker’s son, Russell, accidentally shot and killed his father. Although he was found not guilty, Russell suffered depression and alcoholism and died several years after the incident.
Fearing the bad publicity from the incident, the St. Luke Order called for Walker to resign. In a moving oration, Walker spoke to the members of the Order of her dedication and hard work to make the Order a success. She received a standing ovation and remained the Grand Secretary for the Order for many years.
After a fall down the front steps of her home, Walker suffered knee injuries which plagued her for the rest of her life. She was also a diabetic and was confined to a wheelchair after 1928.
But, right up until the moment of her death on December 15, 1934, Walker remained a leader in the Independent Order of St. Luke and chairman of the bank.
Throughout her life, though, Walker worked to enhance life for African-Americans. She was co-founder and president of the Richmond Council of Colored Women. She was a member of the National Urban League, the Virginia Interracial Committee, the National Association of Wage Earners and the International Council of Women of the Darker Races. She was also co-founder and vice-president of the Richmond branch of the National Association for the advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served on the national board of the NAACP for ten years.
She received an honorary Masters degree from Virginia Union University and was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2001.
The home were Walker and her husband and children lived at 110 ½ East Leigh Street, is a National Historic Site.
Distinguished women of past and present
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site