Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia July 15, 1864. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave, and her biological father, Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish American abolitionist writer. Elizabeth Draper would later marry, William Mitchell and bear a son in 1870 named John B. Mitchell.
At 14 years old, Maggie Walker joined the Independent Order of St. Luke’s, an African American benevolent organization that helped the sick and elderly in Richmond, Virginia.
She would later take leadership of the organization in 1899, refilling its coffers by charging longtime members a higher tax and selling insurance. Within a year, Independent Order of St. Luke’s membership doubled and its treasury holdings increased to a net $1,288 (or $38,000 today).
In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, offering checking and savings accounts, mortgages, and loans to provide economic empowerment to women and help strengthen Richmond's emerging black middle class. Initial shares of the company sold for $10 apiece, her board of directors were required to purchase ten shares each.
“That first day, 280 customers deposited more than $9,400 (or about $280,000 today), including the largest deposit of $441 and one account that was opened with just 31 cents.” By the mid-1920s, it had accumulated $500,000 in assets (around $7 million today) and had provided mortgages for 645 homes.
By 1924, the Penny Savings Bank had spread to other parts of Virginia and included more than 50,000 members. It would merge with two other Richmond banks to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Until 2009, the bank thrived as the oldest continually African American-operated bank in the United States.
“First, we need a savings bank. Let us put our moneys together… let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
In 1905, she’d opened the St. Luke Emporium, a department store located on Broad Street in Richmond, VA in part to counter Jim Crow restrictions which forbade Black customers to use the main entrance or try on merchandise. The store was primarily staffed by Black women, featured Black mannequins and allowed Black customers to enter through the front door.
She was married to Armstead Walker. They had two sons (a third son died in infancy), and adopted Armstead’s distant cousin, Polly. Her husband Armstead was accidentally killed by her son Russell in 1915; and both Russell and his brother, Melvin, died in their mid-thirties.
Their home at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street was built in 1883, in the heart of Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond's African American business and social life at the turn of the century.
Maggie Walker died December 15,1934 from complications due to diabetes. The Walker family owned the home until 1979, when it was purchased by the National Park Service. In 1934, the month of October was set aside as the “Maggie Lena Walker Month” in the state of Virginia.
“Woman bank presidents in the United States are very rare indeed. It is quite possible to go through a whole lifetime without seeing one." —Mary Church Terrell
Like this post? Stop by and read "Madam C.J. Walker: From the Cottonfields to Building a Beauty Business Empire." I would love it if you would also stop by the online store to shop for handcrafted beaded jewelry.
- Jackson, Garnet, and Keaf Holliday. Maggie Walker, Business Leader. Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.
- “Life Story: Maggie Walker.” Women & the American Story, 23 June 2021
- “Maggie Lena Walker, Letter, c. 1920s.” Omeka RSS,
- “Maggie Lena Walker.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
- McGrath, Maggie. “Why America's First Black Female Bank Founder Is Still Owed a Great Debt.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 Mar. 2021