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. 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.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.
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. Maggie then studied at the Navy Hill School for two years. At age 16 or 17, Maggie joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, a Richmond fraternal order.
She married Armstead Walker Jr. in 1886. Together, Maggie and Armstead had three sons. The couple also adopted a daughter. 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 theSt. Luke Heraldwas 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 theSt. Luke Heraldcame 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.