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Maggie Lena Walker

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 3/10/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

The graduating class of 1883 were not going to tolerate it. A local theatre happily hosted the ceremonies of the white public schools, but refused to accommodate the commencement ceremony for the Richmond Colored Normal School. Maggie Lena Draper and her classmates protested. “Our parents pay taxes just the same as you white folks,” wrote Wendell P. Dabney, Richmond Colored Normal School, Class of 1883, “and you’ve got no business spending big money out of those taxes to pay for the theatre for white children unless you do the same for black children.”

This campaign for equal treatment failed, but time would show that Maggie was not one to be discouraged for long.

Maggie was born on July 15, 1864, while the country was still in the throes of the Civil War, after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father was a Confederate soldier and journalist, Eccles Cuthbert, who had been born in Ireland and then stationed at the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He may have written letters to his daughter during her youth, but that was the extent of his involvement in her life.

Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a formerly enslaved woman who worked at the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a noted spy and abolitionist. In Maggie’s early years, her mother married William Mitchell, who worked as a butler at the Van Lew estate. Together, the couple had a son, Johnnie, in 1870. William got a steady job as a headwaiter at the St. Charles Hotel and this new paycheck permitted the family to leave the Van Lew’s. They rented a home of their own in Richmond, near the Medical College of Virginia.

Tragically, in February of 1876, when Maggie was just 11 years old, William was found drowned in the James River. His death was declared a suicide, but Maggie’s mother insisted her husband had been murdered. This would not be the last tragic and troubling death in Maggie’s life.

Without William’s income, his wife and children fell into poverty. Enterprising Elizabeth quickly started a laundry business to keep them financially afloat and 11-year-old Maggie was put to work. Later in life she would say, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically upon my head.”

But Maggie’s mother also valued an education. Maggie attended the Lancasterian School (later called Valley School), which was founded in the early decades of the 1800s to educate children living in poverty. It was located “on a muddy street and across from the city jail,” wrote Zachary Reid for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “White students got the newest and best buildings. When those buildings wore out, they were handed down to black students.”

Maggie then studied at the Navy Hill School for two years. The school, built in 1871, was already in disrepair. “The buildings are old, and were not originally well built, hence they will need annual repairs to keep them in condition for use,” stated a December 1890 report from the Annual Message and Accompanying Documents of the Mayor of Richmond. 

Despite the conditions, Maggie treasured her schooling, specifically the Black teachers educating her and her peers. “They guided our childish feet, trained our restless hands, and created within our youthful souls an unquenchable search for knowledge, and an undying ambition to be something, and to do something,” she said. 

Photo: 1928-1932
Mrs Walker in her 'rolling chair"
Maggie K Walker Natl Historical Site

At age 16 or 17, Maggie joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, a Richmond fraternal order. As a National Park Service article noted, “Segregation forced the Black community to look inward for support and self-reliance, and fraternal orders were a way to achieve independence and success. Black fraternal orders like the Independent Order of St. Luke had their roots in similar societies formed in Africa among groups like the Igbo.” Maggie quickly rose in the organization and recruited other youth members.  

Richmond Colored Normal School became part of the public school system in 1876. Seven years later, Maggie’s graduating class didn’t get the ceremony they deserved, but 19-year-old Maggie stayed focused on the future. She returned to the Lancasterian School, this time as a teacher, where she worked for three years.

She married Armstead Walker Jr. on Sept. 14, 1886. Armstead worked for his family’s construction and bricklaying business, and his would become the only income for the newlywed couple: School policy prohibited the employment of married women, so Maggie was forced to leave her teaching position.

Together, Maggie and Armstead had three sons. Russell Eccles Talmadge Walker was born in 1890, Armstead Mitchell Walker (who lived only seven months) in 1893, and Melvin DeWitt Walker in 1897. The couple also adopted a daughter, Polly Anderson. 

Maggie poured her energy into the IOSL. She became the grand deputy matron and founded the Juvenile Branch. Throughout her life, she saw tremendous value in investing in youngsters and their sense of pride. “Our hope for the future lies with our children,” she often said, “for ‘as the twig is bent, the tree is inclined.’”

The Walker family purchased a home in Jackson Ward, also called the “Harlem of the South.” There, their nine-bedroom house became a hotbed of activity, business, and culture, eventually expanding to 28 rooms.

St. Luke and its efforts expanded as well. “What we need is an organ, a newspaper to herald and proclaim the work of the Order,” Maggie declared at the IOSL convention on August 20, 1901. “No business, no enterprise, which has to deal with the public, can be pushed successfully without a newspaper…” Months later, the first issue of the St. Luke Herald was published, aided significantly by the St. Luke Printing Department.

She brought each of these goals to fruition in the following years. After the 1902 publishing of the St. Luke Herald came the 1903 foundation of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and the 1905 opening of the St. Luke Emporium right on Broad Street in Jackson Ward. 

The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank made her the first African American female bank president in the United States. “Let us awake. Let us arise,” Maggie said in that 1901 speech. “We have the men, we have the women, we have the brains. Let us form a partnership of heads and brains, and actually do something. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Mistrust of established financial institutions was warranted. The Freedman’s Bank, authorized by President Lincoln just before his assassination in 1865, closed in 1874 amid a cloud of rumors and corruption. Congress had permitted the bank to provide mortgages and business loans—but most went to white customers. This created, Marcus Anthony Hunter wrote for The Chicago Reporter, “a financial paradox: a bank using the savings and income of black depositors to advance the economic fortunes of whites who had at their disposal mainstream banks that excluded blacks.”

Under Maggie’s leadership, the St. Luke bank financed over 600 homes and business loans for Black members of the community. She was also, at the time, the highest employer of Black women in the area. “I found Mrs. Walker working like a beaver in St. Luke’s Hall. In the building, working under her orders, were some 30 young colored women clerks, bookkeepers, typewriters, and stenographers,” Mrs. S.I.C. Ralph described in The Baltimore Afro-American. “It was a novel and instructive sight, and the deeds that she has accomplished ought to afford encouragement and inspiration to every Negro in the land.”

Indeed, in addition to her passion for the promise of children, Maggie believed deeply in the advancement of women, specifically Black women. “The elevation of woman to her proper and rightful place has been the slowest work of the centuries,” she said in 1909. “The future of the race is in the hands of our women.” 

It was years yet before any in Jackson Ward would have the right to vote, but Maggie knew another way to make their voices heard: money. In 1904, she joined other community organizers in calling for a boycott of the trolley car system, a protest against the segregation policy of the Virginia Passenger and Power Company. “Every legislature in the South legislates against the Negro,” Maggie wrote in the St. Luke Herald. “Let us walk. Our self-respect demands that we walk.” So walk they did, denying the trolley cars fares from Black riders. The Virginia Passenger and Power Company closed within the year.

Maggie put out the call for a similar boycott of white-owned retailers. “Every time you set foot in a white man’s store, you are making the lion of prejudice stronger and stronger, and making it all the more easy for him to devour the Negro merchant who is trying to do business,” Maggie said. “The only way we can kill the lion of race prejudice is to stop feeding him.” While the bank and the newspaper held strong, the emporium struggled from its first day.

“With its dazzling electric signs, its brown-skinned mannequins, and its impeccable staff, the St. Luke Emporium stood in proud defiance of Jim Crow,” wrote Ethan P. Bullard for the documentary short Carry On: The Life and Legacy of Maggie Lena Walker. (Ethan also collected many of the quotes used in this article.) But, whether from necessity or fear of reprisal, Black customers continued to shop at white-owned establishments. The emporium shut down in 1911.

Unthinkable tragedy visited Maggie once again in 1915. Her son, 25-year-old Russell, mistook Armstead for an intruder and shot his father, killing him. “Dear God, give me strength to understand,” Maggie wrote. “Armstead was my staunch, tried-and-true friend. His departure, it’s my eternal loss. Grant me the strength to carry on.” Russell was arrested for murder and spent five months awaiting trial before he was found innocent, but he would never recover from the incident. He died Nov. 23, 1923, after years suffering depression and alcoholism. 

Maggie found a way to carry on. Where her mother fell into poverty with the death of her husband, Maggie had a financial foundation beneath her. She kept her family, her home, and even her community afloat. 

In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women, including Maggie, the right to vote in the United States. Each state, however, saw its own challenges to progress. In Virginia, the 1902 Constitution had openly worked to, as delegate W. Gordon Robertson said at the time, “get around the Fifteenth Amendment” that granted African American men the right to vote. They did this by creating voting strictures and limits that drastically disenfranchised Black men and poor white men. Come 1920, according to The Valentine, a museum dedicated to preserving Richmond history, “with white women enfranchised and so many Blacks unable to vote, the Republicans gained little in courting the Black vote or campaigning on racial progress as they had in the past.”

This led to state Republicans running a “Lily White” campaign. They barred Black voters from their conventions and seated no Black delegates. “In response,” The Valentine reported, “600 Black delegates met in Richmond on September 5, 1921, and nominated their own Republican candidates for state office—all Black.”

On this Republican “Lily Black” ticket, as they called it, John Mitchell Jr., a fellow newspaper editor of the Richmond Planet, ran for governor, with Maggie running for state superintendent. They didn’t expect to win—the protest was the point, and they insisted this Black-led ticket better represented the voters’ wishes. The Lily Black candidates didn’t win, but neither did the Lily Whites. The Democrats swept the election.

Generally disillusioned by politics, Maggie continued focusing on her community work. She lent her support to the Virginia Industrial Home for Wayward Colored Girls, and actively advocated for the anti-lynching movement. “There is no reason why anyone should stand by idly waiting with folded arms, saying, ‘There is nothing I can do,’” she wrote. “We can do anything just as soon as we learn the lesson of UNITY.”

“If you can, individually, feed and clothe and help yourself, you can, combinedly, clothe and help others,” she said.

A 1928 illness, a knee injury, and progressive Type II Diabetes gradually eroded Maggie’s ability to walk. By the end of the decade, she used a wheelchair, one specially designed for her needs with a footrest and a writing desk. She called it her “rolling-chair.” According to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, “Determined to maintain her countless leadership positions, Mrs. Walker continued to write letters, sign checks, and draft speeches from the comfort of her portable office. At a time when physical disabilities had the public stigma of ‘weakness,’ Mrs. Walker commissioned several photographs capturing her at work in her rolling-chair.” Even in this, she led by example.

When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression descended, the over 50,000 members of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank were safe. Other banks collapsed, but the one Maggie founded held firm. In the 1930s, it merged with two smaller Black-owned banks, uniting under the name Consolidated Bank & Trust. It still operates today. 

Maggie died on Dec. 15, 1934, from diabetic gangrene. Her family owned the Jackson Ward home until 1979 when it was purchased by the National Park Service. Jackson Ward itself is now a National Historic Landmark District and her former home is the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.

It’s said that Maggie’s final words were, “Have faith, have hope, have courage, and carry on.”