Sorry that I’ve been out for the last week. Wouldn’t you know it? I would get swamped during Black History Month. I’m back for now. I hope you all have a Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m going to try a new Indian place with my hubby.
Maggie L. Walker
America’s First Woman Bank President
One of the most profoundly influential activists of her time in a wide range of local and national black organizations, Maggie L. Walker won special renown as the head of the Independent Order of Saint Luke, a society through which she created businesses that provided employment for African-Americans, especially black women, in over twenty states. As a result of her work at Saint Luke, she became the first woman bank president in the United States.
No official record exists of Maggie Lena Walker’s birth. She claimed to have been born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 15, 1867, but she may have been born two or three years earlier. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a domestic servant for the famous Richmond-based Union Spy Elizabeth Van Lew. Maggie’s father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish-born correspondent for the New York Herald.
Maggie was baptised into the First African Baptist Church in 1878. Religion remained an important part of her life in later years, during which she was active in Baptist affairs and drew on the Bible in her speeches and diaries.
While she was still in school, Maggie Walker joined Good Idea Council No. 16 of the Indpendent Order of Saint Luke, a mutual aid society in Richmond. During the next decade or so she held at one time or another, all the ritual positions in the order, served as a delegate to several Saint Luke conventions, and headed her Good Idea Council.
In 1895 Walker founded the order’s Juvenile Division with Circles. In 1899 Walker was elected secretary, or head, of the Right Worthy Grand Council, the central organization of Saint Luke. Inheriting extremely limited resources, she soon transformed the society into a prosperous, diversified business.
Her first step was to enforce a compulsory life insurance plan for all Saint Luke members. Like many such societies, Saint Luke had for some time operated an optional internal insurance plan. By making the plan compulsory Walker immediately increased the organization’s available revenues.
To increase the financial security of everyone associated with the society, Walker led the organization into a series of new business ventures, beginning with a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, which flourished in 1902. Edited by Lillian Payne, the paper was noted for its outspoken editorialson such emotive topics such as lynching and the status of women. A profitable printing business grew as a sideline out of the paper.
In 1903 Walker became the first woman bank president in the United States when her society opened the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank. She prepared for her new role by daily studying banking for several months at the Merchants’ National Bank of Richmond. Her principal task as head of the bank was to persuade Saint Luke members and other black residents in Richmond to trust the new institution and under her leadership the bank grew slowly but steadily.
At the beginning of the Great Depression the Saint Luke Bank and Trust, as the bank was known by then, merged with two other banks to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker chaired the board of this new financial instituation, the only black bank left in Richmond at the time. She also served on the board of the Community House for Colored People, which evolved into the Richmond branch of the Urban League. She helped to start the International Council of Women of the Darker Races. She served on teh board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, chaired consecutively the business, financial and budget committees and was simultaneously a member of the executive committee of the National Association of Colored Women. She helped to found Virginia’s Negro Organization Society, which fought for better health and education and was a member of the State Interracial Commission.
IN 1912 Walker founded and became lifelong president of Richmond’s Council of Colored Women, which supported Janie Porter Barrett’s Industrial School for Colored Girls and many other social service projects. The CCW’s house on Clay Street was also used for other important activities in the black community, such as an office for the NAACP and a canteen for black servicemen in World War I. During the Great Depression, Saint Luke sold the house to the city, which converted the building into the first black library in Richmond. In 1991 the house became the Black History Museum.
Maggie L. Walker died in Richmond on December 15, 1934. Her house on Leigh Street later became a national historic site maintained by the National Park Service. With her indomitable spirit she pioneered economic independence among African-American women.