Maggie Lena Walker once said, "I am of the opinion [that] if we can catch the vision, in a few years we shall be able to enjoy the fruits from this effort and its attendant responsibilities, through untold benefits reaped by the youth of the race." As the first American woman--of any race--to be a bank president, Walker was a trailblazer who inspired many African-American men and women to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs. As a follower of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of "cast down your bucket where you are," Walker was a lifelong resident of Richmond, working to bring change to African-Americans throughout Virginia.
Early LifeIn 1867, Walker was born Maggie Lena Mitchell in Richmond, Va. Her parents, Elizabeth Draper Mitchell and father, William Mitchell, were both former slaves who were emancipated through the thirteenth amendment. Walker's mother was an assistant cook and her father was a butler in a mansion owned by the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew. Following the death of her father, Walker took on a number of jobs to help support her family. While attending school, she worked as a delivery girl and babysitter. By 1883, Walker graduated at the top of her class. That same year, she began teaching at the Lancaster School. Walker also attended the school, taking classes in accounting and business. Walker taught at the Lancaster School for three years before accepting a job as a secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke in Richmond, an organization that assisted sick and elderly members of the community.
Entrepreneur and Community ActivistWhile working for the Order of St. Luke, Walker was appointed secretary-treasurer of the organization. Under Walker's leadership, the organization's membership increased tremendously by encouraging African-American women to save their money. Under Walker's tutelage, the organization purchased an office building for $100,000 and increased the staff to more than fifty employees.
In 1902, Walker established the St. Luke Herald, an African-American newspaper in Richmond.
Following the successes of the St. Luke Herald, Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. By doing so, Walker became the first women in the United States to found a bank. The goal of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was to provide loans to members of the community. In 1920, the bank helped members of the community purchase an estimated 600 houses. The success of the bank helped the Independent Order of St. Luke continue to grow. In 1924, it was reported that the order had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and estimated assets of at least $400,000. During the Great Depression, St. Luke Penny Savings merged with two other banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker served as chairperson of the board.
Walker was an avid fighter for the rights of not only African-Americans, but women as well. In 1912, Walker helped establish the Richmond Council of Colored Women and was elected as the organization's president. Under Walker's leadership, the organization raised money to support Janie Porter Barrett's Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls as well as other philanthropic endeavors.
Walker was also a member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, the National Association of Wage Earners, National Urban League, the Virginia Interracial Committee and the Richmond chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Honors and Awards
Throughout Walker's life, she was honored for her efforts as a community builder. In 1923, Walker was the recipient of an honorary Master's degree from Virginia Union University.
Walker was inducted in to the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2002.
In addition, the City of Richmond named a street, theatre and high school in Walker's honor.
Family and Marriage
In 1886, Walker married her husband, Armistead, an African-American contractor. The Walkers had two sons named Russell and Melvin.