Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: I heard the first woman to own and operate a bank was a Black woman. Is that true?
~ Anthony Y.
A: Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman of any race to found and serve as the president of a bank. Walker (born Maggie Lena Draper) rose from a modest childhood as the daughter of an enslaved woman in Richmond, Virginia to become a prominent banker, entrepreneur, member of The National Negro Business League, suffragist, and community leader in in the early 20th century. As a youth Walker helped her mother who worked as a laundress but was also an astute student. In secondary school, she worked part-time as a clerk, first with the True Reformers and then the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL). After graduation, Walked became a teacher and maintained involvement in the IOSL. The IOSL was organized and led by African American women. It played a significant role in Black community development and support from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. The IOSL was dedicated to social reform and service work. They also offered life insurance, becoming one of the most successful insurance societies in the nation.
In 1886, Walker married Armstead Walker Jr. His family ran a brick contracting company and were part of the upper-class in Richmond. Walker had to quit her job because Virginia laws did not allow married women to teach. Walker chose to use her position among the Black elite to influence activism and engage in business enterprises. Walker pursued business opportunities as a co-owner of the all-female Woman’s Union that operated a grocery store, boarding house, and school. To advance her business skills, she enrolled in night school taking accounting classes. She assumed leadership of the IOSL in 1899 and remained in that position until 1934. She encouraged members to be resilient and vigilant in the face of Jim Crow-era discrimination and marginalization. At its height, the IOSL boasted over 100,000 members in 22 states and continued offering insurance through the 1970s. The IOSL was also the largest employer of Black women in Richmond.
In 1902, she established the St. Luke Herald, a Black newspaper in Richmond. Using the earnings from its financial success, she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. St. Luke provided loans to the local community and in 1920, the bank helped Richmond residents buy at least 600 houses. As president of the St. Luke Bank (a position that she held until her death in 1934) and secretary-treasurer of the Independent Order of St. Luke, Walker wielded great influence. Walker was a captivating orator and the most prominent and powerful Black woman in the financial industry. She was often the only woman present at banking conventions and used her position to advocate for female excellence and representation in the financial world. During the Great Depression St. Luke merged with two other banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust in 1929, which was the longest-operating Black-controlled bank until it sold in 2011.
Walker never forgot her humble beginnings: “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head. I have come up on the rough side of the mountain.” She often used this quote in her public speeches, and it informed her business model. She created financial services that helped poor and working-class Black women knowing they were dependent on white employment and male financial support. Illness or an injury could plunge an economically vulnerable family into a financial catastrophe. Walker understood what it meant for working women to be seen as socially unacceptable and rejected the negative stereotypes about African American women’s intellect and sexuality circulated by popular culture. Her banking and insurance companies were created to reduce the impact that race and gender-based discrimination had on the economic and social lives of Black women.
Walker served on the boards of the Negro Organization of Virginia, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Colored Women, and interracial organizations, like the Virginia Interracial Committee. She was active in numerous community organizations, served as trustee for African American women’s educational institutions like Virginia Union University and the National Training School in Washington, DC. When Walker died in 1934, thousands of people attended her funeral to pay tribute to the financial titan and philanthropic benefactor.
Jim Crow Museum
Crystal Marie Moten, F. 27. (2021, February 19). Pennies and nickels add up to success: Maggie Lena Walker. National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/maggie-walker
Norwood, A. R. (n.d.). Biography: Maggie Lena Walker. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/maggie-lena-walker.
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Maggie L. Walker (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/maggie-l-walker.htm.
Walker, Maggie Lena. (2016). In A to Z of Women: American Women Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs.
VPM. (2021). Our Inspiration: The Story of Maggie Lena Walker. PBS LearningMedia. https://wv.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/a9dedf68-e383-4d04-85a0-0a5ac0ed2eac/our-inspiration-the-story-of-maggie-lena-walker/.