African-American Landmarks: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Part of our African-American Landmarks & Destinations Family Travel Series

By Kimberly Dijkstra

 

Maggie L. Walker

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, Maggie L. Walker demonstrated leadership abilities at a young age. At 14 years old, the future teacher and businesswoman joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization that looked after the sick and elderly, supported humanitarian causes, and promoted individual self-help and integrity. 

 

Walker served in numerous capacities, rising to the position of Grand Deputy Matron in 1985, at which time she established the Juvenile Branch of the Order, encouraging education, community service, and thrift in young members. She rose again to Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, and held the position until her death in 1934. Under her leadership, the organization thrived.

 

In 1902, Walker established The St. Luke Herald, a newspaper that communicated the Order’s objectives to the public. Recognizing the discrimation her community faced at white-owned banks, Walker stated in a speech, “Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.” In another speech, she said, “Let us put our money together; let us use our money; Let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves.”

 

In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as the bank’s first president. As the first African-American woman to charter a bank in the United States, Walker became a role model for young African-American women. She helped found the Richmond Council of Colored Women in 1912 and helped raise funds for institutions, such as Janie Porter Barrett’s Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls.

 

On the first day it opened for business, nearly 300 customers deposited more than $9,000. Children were encouraged to save their pennies in the bank, instilling strong financial sense in the youth. The bank grew over the years to serve more than 50,000 members. 

 

When the Great Depression struck, Walker took action to ensure her customers’ assets were secure. The bank merged with two other local banks and Walker served as chairman of the board of directors. Until 2009, the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company was the oldest bank continually operated by African Americans in the United States. Numerous Black families were able to realize their dream of home ownership because of Walker’s visionary enterprises.

 

Throughout her life, in addition to her work with the Order and the bank, Walker was active in civic groups. She served as vice president of a local NAACP chapter, as well as a member of the national NAACP board, and as a member of the Virginia Interracial Commission. She always strove to challenge racial and gender injustice and used her successes to make tangible improvements in the way of life of African Americans. 

 

Walker’s family life eventually met tragedy when her son mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him. She managed the household after her husband’s death and continued her work in the community. Disabled later in life and confined to a wheelchair, Walker adapted and became an example for people with disabilities. 

 

Her Legacy

Walker’s many accomplishments are remembered at 110 ½ East Leigh Street, Richmond, VA. The home remained in the Walker family until 1979, when the National Park Service (NPS) purchased it and made it a National Historic Site. Furnishings in the Victorian home where she raised her children and built additions as her family grew are original to the early 1900s period of occupancy. Nowhere can one come closer to understanding Walker’s life of service and entrepreneurship. 

 

Guided tours of the historic home are available by reservation only. Children are invited to participate in the Junior Ranger program. Activities in the Junior Ranger booklet allow young visitors to explore Walker’s story in the context of our country’s history.

 

Walker’s bank has been a source of pride for Richmond residents and still stands today at the corner of 1st and Marshall Streets under the name Premier Bank. Two blocks away, in Maggie Lena Walker Memorial Plaza, a 10-foot-tall bronze statue stands in her honor, surrounded by benches marked by a timeline of her most notable achievements. 

 

St. Luke Hall, the primary headquarters for the Order of St. Luke publishing site of the St. Luke Herald, still stands on the corner of Baker and St. James Streets. Since 2020, it has been known as the St. Luke Legacy Center, with the mission of providing the same types of services that Walker organized for families in need.

 

These landmarks are located in the Jackson Ward Historic District, which was significant during the Civil Rights era. It has been referred to as “The Cradle of Black Capitalism” due to Walker’s endeavors and the other 100 Black-owned businesses which operated during the Jim Crow era. This lively area is also home to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the iconic Hippodrome Theater, and a number of soul food restaurants and indie art galleries.

 

The NPS has produced The Jackson Ward Walking Tour podcast, featuring 13 stops in this important center of African American cultural and economic activity. Download it and a map before venturing out into the neighborhood.

 

   


More Landmarks and Destinations

Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Black Cowboy Museum

The Underground Railroad

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Booker T. Washington National Monument

The DuSable Museum of African American History

 

 

 

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