Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, Maggie Lena Walker

Jul 19, 2005 6:53 pm

Happy Birthday, Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker excelled as a feminist, civil rights advocate, bank president and fraternal leader in an age where the rights of blacks had reached their lowest ebb. She was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1867 and worked for a time as a school teacher. At an early age, her life changed for good when she joined the Independent Order of Saint Luke, a struggling black fraternal organization which appeared to be on its last legs. Talented and ambitious, she became the head of that organization in 1899 as grand secretary. During Walker’s tenure, which lasted until her death in 1934, membership and assets grew rapidly. Under her leadership, the Order set up several side businesses, the most durable being the Saint Luke Penny Savings bank, founded in 1903. She was probably the first woman in American history who was a bank president in her own right and not chosen because of family connections. It also established a printing plant, a newspaper called the Saint Luke Herald, and for a brief time, a department store, the Saint Luke Emporium.

Like her contemporary, Booker T. Washington, Walker often sang the praises of thrift. She called on blacks to emulate “the wealthiest men” of Richmond who accumulated vast bank accounts with “simply a dollar or two to which they constantly added.” Walker regarded the advancement of black women as precondition for collective and political advancement, but said they could never reach their potential so long as a husband could “lord it over, or dominate the wife.” She considered equal marriages to be a prerequisite to building entrepreneurship. Walker asked: “What stronger combination could God make-then the partnership of a businessman and businesswoman[?]”

Walker was an energetic participant in a valiant rear guard action against disfranchisement and Jim Crow. In 1904, she was a leader in protests against a law that segregated streetcars in Richmond. From 1923 until her death in 1934, she served on the board of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Partly because of her efforts, by the 1920s about 80 percent of eligible black voters were women. The bank she founded, now called the Bank and Trust Company of Richmond, still exists today and has assets of over $100 million.

I discuss Walker in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 . She is also the subject of a new biography by Muriel Miller Branch and Dorothy Marie Rice, Pennies to Dollars: The Story of Maggie Lena Walker.

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More Comments:

David T. Beito - 7/16/2005

She wrote at least a couple of things that are now available. There is also anoher recent biography which I had missed:

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/16/2005

Thanks for posting, David!
She must have been a truly remarkable person. Do you know if there are any writings by her that are currently available?
Just a thought.
Just Ken