The end of the American Civil War was a time for celebration. The fighting, the bloodiest in the young nation’s history, was finally over. The country, once fractured, was again one. The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery, and became the law of the land in December 1865, eight months after the end of the war. Former African American slaves could now look forward to a future living free.
While there was much to celebrate, life was difficult in the former Confederate states. There was a large gap in income between the rich and the poor, and this gap was usually even greater for the former slaves. People started trying to figure out ways to help those who were less fortunate. One way was through the establishment of benevolent societies. These societies provided aid to people struggling with poverty, illness, or old age.
While many benevolent societies would make important contributions, one group in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, called the Independent Order of St. Luke, was able to offer a significant boost to African American economic life. Much of the success was because of Maggie Walker. Born to ex-slaves in Richmond in 1867, Walker would become the first woman in the United States to start a bank.
Post-War Life in Richmond
Walker, who was born Maggie Mitchell, was raised in poverty. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave who worked as an assistant cook in at the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Civil War spy. Elizabeth Draper and her husband, William Mitchell, started their own home, located in an alley behind Broad and Marshall streets in Richmond. The couple had two children, Maggie and her brother, Johnnie. After the untimely death of her husband, Maggie’s mother supported the family by working as a launderer. Maggie helped her mother by delivering the freshly cleaned and dried clothes to the customers.
While she helped with the family business, Walker was also a serious student, graduating from high school when she was only 16. After graduation, she taught elementary school for three years. During this time, she also joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke. Founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1867, this benevolent group focused on caring for the sick and aged, as well as promoting humanitarian causes.
Walker left teaching in 1886 to marry Armstead Walker Jr. and to raise a family. She and Armstead were prosperous, earning enough money to comfortably raise their two sons. Although busy with her children, Walker remained involved with the St. Luke organization. After starting off as a delegate to the group’s national convention, she rose to the position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, a position she held until her death. Among her many accomplishments, Walker helped the group establish a printing press. With a press, in 1902, she was able to start publishing a newspaper called The St. Luke Herald. The newspaper was intended to promote communication between the organization and the community.
Building Economic Power
Looking at fellow African Americans, Walker noticed that many of them knew very little about managing, saving, or investing the money they earned. To make matters worse, they could not rely on financial help from established banks, which were all owned by whites. Walker realized that if African Americans wanted to attain economic power, they would have to do it themselves. She decided she would convince the local community to pool their money. This pooled money could then be used to provide loans.
“We need a savings bank,” Walker argued. “Chartered, offered and run by the men and women of this order. Let us have a bank that will take nickels and turn them into dollars.”
By 1903 Walker managed to collect about $9,400 from the community. With this money she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Not only was she the first African American woman to preside over a bank, Walker was also the first woman in the U.S. of any race to run a savings institution. Her bank’s customers were expected to deposit a nickel a week into their accounts, which, because of increases due to inflation, equaled about $1.25 in today’s money. Although this may not seem like much, within ten years, by 1913, Walker’s bank had collected $300,000, about $7 million in today’s money.
By 1920, the financial strength of Maggie Walker and the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank had helped its customers buy about 600 homes. The bank also remained able to help customers during the Great Depression. This financial crisis, which started in 1929, led to the closing of many banks throughout the United States. However, because of Walker’s leadership, St. Luke Penny Savings had enough money to not only help its own customers but also to absorb all of the other local African American-owned banks. Because of this development, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was renamed the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. The new bank was strong, holding about $400,000 in assets. Until it was acquired by Abigail Adams National Bancorp in 2005, the bank Walker founded remained the oldest continuously running African American-operated bank in the United States.
A Champion for Change
Later in her life, Maggie Walker developed diabetes, a disease that eventually confined her to a wheelchair. Walker, however, never let her health stop her from improving African American life, both socially and economically. Walker helped to organize a Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and served as the local chapter’s vice president. She also was a member of the Virginia Interracial Commission.
As an advocate for African American women’s rights, she served on the board of trustees for several women’s groups, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the Virginia Industrial School for Girls. She died in 1934.
Visit the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site online.
Learn about other African American business leaders at the Library of Congress.
Images and Sources
Maggie Walker Photo: The Browns.
Maggie Walker Photo License: Public Domain.