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Maggie Lena Walker

Bank President, Activist, Philanthropist

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Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker c. 1905

Courtesy National Park Service

Dates:  July 15, 1867 - December 15, 1934

Occupation: bank president, business executive, lecturer, activist, philanthropist, writer

Known for: first woman bank president in the US

Also known as: Maggie Lena Mitchell, Maggie L. Walker, Maggie Mitchell Walker; Lizzie (as a child); Lame Lioness (in her later years)

Background, Family:

  • Father: Eccles Cuthbert (Irish journalist and Northern abolitionist) according to family tradition
  • Mother: Elizabeth Draper (ex-slave, cook's assistant in home of Elizabeth Van Lew, laundress)
  • Stepfather: William Mitchell (butler for Elizabeth Van Lew, waiter)

Education:

  • Richmond's segregated school system
  • graduated form Colored Normal School (Armstrong Normal and High School), 1883

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Armstead Walker, jr. (married September 14, 1886; building contractor)
  • children:
    • Russell Eccles Talmadge
    • Armstead Mitchell (died as infant)
    • Melvin DeWitt
    • Polly Anderson (adopted)

About Maggie Lena Walker:

Maggie Walker's mother married a co-worker, William Mitchell, and Maggie took his last name. Mitchell disappeared and was found a few days later, drowned; it was assumed he'd been robbed and murdered. Her mother took in laundry to support the family. Maggie graduated from Normal School in 1883; a protest by the ten African American students over being forced to graduate in a church led to a compromise allowing them to graduate at their school. Maggie began teaching.

It was not Maggie's first involvement in something beyond the ordinary for a young girl. In high school, she joined a fraternal organization in Richmond, the Independent Order of St. Luke Society. This organization provided health insurance and burial benefits for members, and also was involved in self-help and racial pride activities. Maggie Walker helped form a juvenile division of the Society.

Maggie married Armstead Walker, jr., after meeting him at church. She had to give up her job, as was usual for teachers who married, and soon she put more efforts into volunteer work with the I. O. of St. Luke. She was elected Secretary in 1899, at a time the Society was on the brink of failing. Instead, Maggie Walker took on a major membership drive, lecturing not only in and around Richmond but around the country. She built it up to more than 100,000 members in more than 20 states.

In 1903, Maggie Walker saw an opportunity for the Society and formed a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and she served as president of the bank until 1932. This made her the first (known) woman president of a bank in the United States.

She also led the Society to more self-help programs and philanthropic efforts, founded an African American newspaper in 1902 for which she wrote a column for many years, and lectured extensively on race and women's issues.

In 1905, the Walkers moved into a large home in Richmond, which after her death became a national historic site maintained by the National Parks Service. In 1907, a fall at her home caused permanent nerve damage, and she had trouble walking the rest of her life, leading to the nickname, the Lame Lioness.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Walker also served on a number of organizational boards, including the executive committee of the National Association of Colored Women and more than 10 years on the board of the NAACP.

In 1915, tragedy struck Maggie Lena Walker's family, as her son Russell mistook his father for a home intruder, and shot him. Russell was acquitted in a murder trial as his mother stood beside him. He died in 1924, and his wife and child came to live with Maggie Walker.

In 1921, Maggie Walker ran as a Republican for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. By 1928, between her old injury and diabetes, she was wheelchair-bound.

In 1931, with the Depression, Maggie Walker helped merge her bank with several other African American banks, into the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. With her ill health, she retired as bank president and became board chair of the merged bank.

Maggie Walker died in Richmond in 1934.

Religion: active from childhood in Old First Baptist Church, Richmond

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