Maggie Lena Walker (July 15, 1864 – December 15, 1934) was born just after the end of the Civil War. She was the first female bank president in the United States.
Her mother was one of the emancipated slaves in the house of southern abolitionist and Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. When Elizabeth’s father died, she and her mother set their slaves free, though many remained as paid servants in the heart of the Confederacy, Richmond. Elizabeth’s brother often visited the slave market, bought all he could, and issued papers of manumission.
Her maiden name was Mitchell. William Mitchell was a butler and writer. William was not Maggie’s biological father – that distinction belongs to one Eccles Cuthbert, a white Irish immigrant. Apparently, Cuthbert and her mother split, with the marriage to William occurring shortly after Maggie’s birth. William died when Maggie was a teenager, probably murdered, leaving her mother to support the family as a laundress. Maggie was able to attend school in Richmond and was a part of the nearby vibrant First African Baptist Church. After each school day, she helped her mother, delivering laundry to wealthy white houses. In 1904, she recalled, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.”
She went to the Lancaster School and later graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883, where she was trained as a teacher. After graduation, she returned to the Lancaster School where she taught for three years. As a student at Lancaster, she joined the Order of St. Luke, an association to promote the economic development of black people. This proved to be life-changing.
Maggie fell in love – she found a brick contractor named Armstead Walker. The couple bought their own house in 1904, and had three sons and an adopted daughter – one son died at only seven months old. The school district had a policy against married teachers, common in those times, and Maggie was forced to leave her job. She doubled her efforts in family and in the Order of St. Luke. She became the organization’s Grand Secretary, and her skills saved it from bankruptcy. She founded a newspaper, a thrift store, and in 1902, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. She remained president until 1929, the first woman of any race to hold that position in the United States.
Tragedy struck along with success. Armstead worked late on a job one night and stopped by to visit his father Russell on the way home, not a normal occurrence. His father, due to the late hour, thought there was an intruder, and shot Armstead, killing him. Russell was tried for murder and acquitted, but died of depression, alcoholism, and a broken heart. Maggie contracted diabetes and spent the latter years of her life in a wheelchair.
Despite these setbacks, Maggie persevered. She provided jobs, and an example for young women to follow. The Order of St. Lukes roared back from bankruptcy under her leadership, collected nearly $3.5 million, claimed 100,000 members in twenty-four states, and built up almost $100,000 in reserve. The bank she founded went through mergers but was still in operation under black ownership at the beginning of the 21st century. While many banks did not survive the Great Depression, Consolidated Bank and Trust, the merged St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and Second Street Savings bank, thrived until 2009. In that year, it was bought by the Premier Bank, ending its distinction as a black-run, independently-owned bank. It was believed to be the oldest continuously black-owned bank in the country until then.
Maggie received an honorary master’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1925. She was active in the civil rights and anti-lynching movement, even running unsuccessfully for office – all Republican black candidates in that election were defeated. She championed a home for wayward girls and organized a campaign against segregation on Richmond’s streetcars. A high school was named after her, and was refurbished in 2004 to open as Maggie L. Walker’s Governors School for Government and International studies. A ten-foot statue of her was erected in Richmond.
Maggie Lena Walker died on December 15, 1934, of diabetic gangrene.