The Life and Times of Maggie L. Walker
“Let us put our money out as usury among ourselves and reap the benefit ourselves.” - Maggie L. Walker
The Maggie L. Walker house is located at 110 ½ E. Leigh Street here in Richmond. Walker had already achieved business success when she and her family moved to this house in 1905. Walker was the first woman to found a bank, The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Her bank is the oldest continually African American operated bank in the United States and is headquartered in Richmond across the street from its original location at the corner of 1st and Marshall Street.
In the 1970s, after centuries of highlighting the achievements of wealthy, heterosexual, white males, historians began to integrate women, African Americans and other previously ignored groups into a more diverse American historical narrative. As this integration began, women and African Americans were primarily viewed as interesting side-stories confined to small boxes on the edges of history textbooks. Walker’s story was optional reading, despite her place in a complicated historical account of private enterprise, racism and gender discrimination.
In these troubled economic times, it is especially important to remember the lives of successful women in business. Ronald Regan would often speak of “well-fare queens“ who exploited government welfare systems, because they were not capable of earning money for themselves. This stereotype continues to influence public policy decisions, such as Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRA) passed in 1996, which ended welfare as an entitlement program (the federal guarantee of assistance to the poor), repealed the social security net for the poor and required participants to work within two years of receiving benefits. The legislation was meant to “end welfare as we know it” and discourage people from turning to their government for assistance during difficult times.
According to these laws, it is a citizen’s “personal responsibility” to lift themselves out of poverty. However, if given entitled government benefits, marginalized women could maintain good health, provide for their families and perhaps have the opportunity to study, or invest in their dreams. The historical phenomenon of fewer successful women business owners in comparison to male business owners is due to a historical hesitancy of politicians and lenders to invest in the wellbeing of women and minorities.
Maggie L. Walker (1867-1934) is an example of a woman who understood the importance of providing insurance and financial opportunities to African Americans and women. During Walker’s life, insurance companies did not provide services for African Americans. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were not yet granted the right to vote and, in many ways, they were still considered to be the property of their husbands. African Americans could vote, thanks to the fifteenth amendment, but were excluded from and harassed at the polls.
In response to this racism, many African American owned insurance programs were established. In 1889 The Grand United Order of St. Luke, an African American cooperative insurance society, orginially founded in Baltimore, established headquarters in Richmond. Maggie Walker had been a member of this society since the age of 14, and through this organization she learned of the importance of racial solidarity and self-help. Born to former slaves, and the daughter of a widowed washerwoman Maggie Walker often said that she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but rather “a clothes basket upon my head.” Through Walker’s efforts the Order transformed into one of the most well-recognized African American fraternal organizations of her time. In 1899 she became the organization’s executive secretary treasurer.
Inspired by her work at The Grand United Order of St.Luke, renamed The Independent Order of St. Luke in 1899, Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and became its president. She was the first woman in the United States to found a bank. Since the major financial institutions of the time refused to give loans to African Americans, Walker ensured that the bank’s primary mission would be to facilitate loans to the community. By the year 1920, Walker and her bank helped African Americans purchase 600 homes, and in 1929 all black-owned banks were merged into The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker was chairman of the board.
With her success, Walker gave the African American community more than just loans. She helped the community turn to each other for solutions to the oppressive world around them. Walker co-founded both the Richmond branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Richmond Council of Colored Women. The Richmond Council of Colored Women raised money to support schools for African American women among other causes. She was also a member of the Virginia Interracial Committee and the National Association of Wage Earners.
The life of Maggie L. Walker demonstrates both the struggles and successes that women and African Americans faced financially after Emancipation. While Walkers story is among one of the greatest “rags to riches” American tales, it also points to the ways in which institutional support is crucial in alleviating poverty and overcoming oppressive structures.
Maggie L. Walker died in Richmond on December 15, 1934 of complications from diabetes, but her legacy continues to inspire the community. Walker’s bank gave women and African Americans opportunities that were denied to them by white owned banks. Racial and gender inequality concerning insurance and loans remains a problem in the United States. Woman’s history month is an important time of the year, because it reminds us to highlight the lives normally kept at the edges of history textbooks, like Maggie L. Walker, and place them at the center of an ongoing American story.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service.
Annie is journalist and activist living in Richmond, Virginia. Her journalism focuses on issues of gender, health and economic inequality. Check out her portfolio here: http://anniebrownportfolio.blogspot.com/ Also, Annie helps run a independent publication entitled, Lips Richmond: http://lipsrichmond.wordpress.com
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