Maggie Lena Walker
Business Personality / Civil Rights Figure
Date Of Birth:
15 July 1864
Date Of Death:
15 December 1934
Place Of Birth:
Best Known As:
The first black American woman to open a bank (1903)
Maggie Lena Walker was a community leader and entrepreneur in Richmond, Virginia in the first part of the 20th century. She’s famous as the first black American woman to start a bank, in 1903. Born in Richmond at the end of the Civil War (Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy), Maggie went to work early on, after her stepfather was found drowned. She graduated from school as a trained teacher in 1883 and worked until 1886, when she married Armstead Walker (school policy did not allow married women to teach). Walker was a member of a fraternal aid society, the Independent Order of St. Luke; she worked at that organization in several capacities and rose through the ranks to become Grand Secretary in 1899. With St. Luke’s, Walker launched an ambitious effort for the black community that included starting a newspaper, opening a department store and founding the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Her idea was to provide shopping and banking services for blacks, to circumvent the white racists in post-Civil War America. Under Walker’s supervision, the bank thrived and membership grew to include members all over the United States (over 100,000). The bank survived the Great Depression and continued to be black-run and independent until 2005. Walker was a celebrity in Richmond, and toured nationally to promote black pride, with special attention to bringing women into the process. In 1915 her husband was shot and killed by their oldest son, Russell, who mistook him for an intruder in their home. Russell died just eight year later, at the age of 33. Walker continued to organize and promote aid programs and community centers, despite failing health due to diabetes. She even ran for public office in 1921 (and lost). Walker died in 1934 and now her home is a National Historic Site.
Maggie Lena Walker’s biological father was Irish. Her mother married a man named Mitchell when Maggie was very young; it was Mitchell who was found drowned in unexplained circumstances.
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