The inspiration & legacy of Maggie Lena Walker
By Ben Anderson, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Maggie L. Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1864. The daughter of a formerly enslaved woman, Walker rose to national prominence at the turn of the twentieth century as the leader of a fraternal order, and a pioneering entrepreneur.
From 1899 until her death in 1934, Walker led the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), a Black fraternal order that offered insurance to its members. As its Right Worthy Grand Secretary-Treasurer, Walker’s entrepreneurial vision transformed the once-fledging order into one of the largest and most successful in the country.
By 1905, Walker had established a newspaper, bank, and department store through the IOSL, but it was the bank that most strongly captured the nation’s attention. When the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank opened its doors in 1903, it became the fourth Black-owned bank in Richmond, and helped establish the former Confederate capital as a thriving center of Black finance during the Jim Crow era. At the same time, it made Walker the first Black woman in America to charter a bank and become a bank president. Walker would spend the next several decades tirelessly campaigning for the IOSL, utilizing her fame and achievements to significantly expand its ranks. By the mid-1920s, the order could boast more than 100,000 members, councils in 24 states, and half-a-million dollars in assets.
Walker’s business acumen and leadership of the IOSL earned her a well-deserved national reputation, but they were far from the only factors that defined her legacy. Dedicated to advancing the civil rights of African Americans and women, Walker spent considerable time as both an activist and philanthropist. Fifty years before Rosa Parks become famous for protesting racial segregation on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Walker co-led a two-year long boycott of Richmond’s segregated streetcars. Walker argued for a woman’s right to vote before it became legal in 1920, and once it did saw to it that as many Black women as possible were prepared for the registration process in Richmond. Walker’s political advocacy was made even more forceful in 1921 when she became the first Black woman in Virginia to run for state office.
Walker put her wealth to use by purchasing, and expanding, a mansion that became a comfortable home to multiple generations of her family, but also gave generously to a variety of organizations that offered advancement in the fields of education and vocational training. Walker once referred to Richmond as “the Athens of the Negro race in America,” and her love for the local community certainly reflected that.
While Walker’s bank was busy supplying Black Richmonders with hundreds of home and business loans, she successfully raised funds on their behalf for the establishment of new residential neighborhoods, medical buildings, and recreational facilities, ensuring that the quality of their lives would long outlast her own.
Today, it should come as no surprise that Walker has been memorialized on both the local and national levels. In 1938, Richmonders honored Walker by naming their newest high school after her, one that continues to educate the next generation. Visitors to Richmond today can also see the recently completed Maggie L. Walker Memorial Plaza on Broad Street, a statue of Walker as part of the Virginia Women’s Monument on the grounds of the state Capitol, and even take a tour of Walker’s palatial home in Jackson Ward, a unit of the National Park Service.