In Richmond, July 15th is Maggie L. Walker Day marking her birthday so we can celebrate and remember her work as a civic leader, teacher, banker, social activist, and entrepreneur. This year would have been her 153rd birthday and as her birthday gift, the city will unveil a monument memorializing her life. The event will be held at W. Broad and Adams at 10AM with a reception to follow.
Who was Maggie Walker?
Despite growing up in neighboring Chesterfield County, I learned very little about Maggie Walker until I started researching Richmond figures a couple years ago. If you don’t know anything about this strong, powerful, black woman’s life or just want a refresher course… this is the post for you! Spoiler alert: there will be a Northside-ish twist!
Maggie Lena Walker was born Maggie Lena Mitchell on July 15, 1864 in Richmond, VA. Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth Draper Mitchell, was a former slave and assistant cook at Elizabeth Van Lew’s mansion in Church Hill. As a brief side note, Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist and philanthropist who operated a spy ring during the Civil War. Maggie attended Richmond Public Schools and taught school from 1883-1886. In 1886, she married Armstead Walker Jr. who was a brick contractor.
From childhood, Maggie was involved in her community. At 14, she joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke which was a fraternal burial society active in promoting humanitarian causes and individual self-help. In 1902, she established The St. Luke Herald which was a newspaper with the goal of improving communication between the Order and the community. The newspaper was originally published weekly but eventually changed to a monthly newsletter. Maggie described the newspaper as, “a trumpet to sound the orders, so that the St. Luke upon the mountain top, and the St. Luke dwelling by the side of the sea, can hear the same order, keep step to the same music, march in unison to the same command, although miles and miles intervene.” The Herald was a driving force in the expansion of the Order. Upon publication, The St. Luke Herald joined the Richmond Planet, the Reformer, and the Virginia Baptist Reporter as one of the leading black weekly newspapers in Richmond. While the main focus of the paper was the comings and goings of the Order, they also reported on civil rights abuse of the African American community. In 1904, The St. Luke Herald joined with the Richmond Planet to call for a boycott of the segregated streetcars that lasted for more than a year.
A year later, she founded St. Luke Penny Savings Bank where she served as the bank’s first president. Maggie famously said, “First we need a savings bank. Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickles and turn them into dollars.” She believed a community bank would combat racial segregation and encourage economic independence. St. Luke Penny Savings Bank created a space for the black community to conduct business which created an escape from white-owned banks that may not offer loans, may charge a higher interest rate on loans, or not accept deposits at all just because of the color of patron’s skin. Maggie became the first president of a black-owned bank in Richmond to be offered membership to the Virginia Banker’s Association.
St Luke’s Penny Savings Bank opened it’s doors on November 2, 1903 (here is the Northside-ish twist!) at 900 St. James Street just a mile and a half south of Brookland Park Boulevard. The bank was built in the Shockoe Hill neighborhood of Jackson Ward which became known as the Harlem of the South as a commercial center for black residents. But the area was nicknamed as Apostle Town for the saintly street names. On the first day, 280 people came in to open bank accounts for amounts ranging from $0.31 to in excess of $100. As a promotion to encourage savings at a young age, penny banks were distributed to customers with children and once there were 100 pennies in the child’s penny bank, they could open an account at the bank. Between 1915-1920, the building was rebuilt. In 1942, the area around St. Luke Penny Saving bank became home to the first housing project in Richmond: Gilpin Court. Then in the 1950s, the construction of Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (aka I-95) created a physical divider in the neighborhood and caused the destruction of many businesses and homes. When the interstate opened in 1958, Gilpin Court was effectively cut off from the commercial district of Jackson Ward. The housing projects expanded in 1957 and 1970 bringing Gilpin Court to it’s current size today of 783 units. In 1982 the bank building was added to the National Register of History Places. At the time of it’s addition to the registry, it was privately owned by James and Margaret Stalling who lived on Hawthorne Ave (Northside!). James Stallings is the father of modern day developer Ron Stallings who renovated the Hippodrome Theater; however, James was a controversial figure known for being a landlord with many properties not up to code. The application for the building to be added to the NRHP indicates that the basement still housed the original printing equipment used to publish St. Luke Herald, the first floor housed shops, the second and third floors were meeting rooms for local churches, and The Independent Order of St. Luke’s offices were on the fourth floor. In 1987 the St. Luke building was home to the city’s Head Start program; however, today it is vacant. Richmond Property tax records indicate ownership was transferred from Margaret Stallings to St. Luke Building, LLC in August 2016. The same Hawthorne Ave address from the NRHP application is listed as the property’s current mailing address. In addition to St. Luke Building, LLC the Hawthorne Ave house is the mailing address for Stallings, LLC who is listed as the owner of 43 properties in Richmond. Of the 43 properties, 41 of them are listed as vacant. One is listed as a commercial shell and another is a two story residential building. The properties are primarily located in the area surrounding Gilpin Court on E Charity, E Baker, St. James, and St. John.
In 1905, the bank moved to 112 Broad Street with St. Luke Emporium. In 1910, the Virginia General Assembly added annual examination requirements for banks which resulted in closures of several banks. St. Luke Penny Savings Bank successfully passed the examination; however, the first black-owned bank in Richmond was shut down. True Reformers Bank was shut down due to unsecured loans, lax operations, and a clerk embezzling money causing most depositors to lose their savings and shake the confidence of the African American community. In 1911, the bank made another move to First and Marshall with the pending closure of St. Luke Emporium. By 1920, over 600 mortgages were issued to black families by St. Luke Penny Savings Bank creating an opportunity for home ownership in addition to employment opportunities. In 1930, the bank merged with Second Street Savings Bank to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust. Consolidated Bank and Trust operated as the oldest black-owned and operated bank until 2005 when it was bought Premier Financial Bancorp, Inc.
In the midst of the bank’s boom, Maggie’s husband was accidentally shot and killed by their son Russell in 1915. Russell and Armstead were searching for a burglar on the roof after hearing a noise and came down on different sides of the house. Russell thought his father followed him down the same side so when he saw someone on the back porch, he thought it was the burglar, and he fired the gun shooting his father in the head. Russell was arrested and found innocent at trial. Russell passed away in 1923 after a battle with depression and alcoholism.
Maggie wasn’t only a community activist, but in 1921 she ran for superintendent of public instruction. She ran as part of an all-black part of the Republican party called the “Lily Black” Republicans; however, she did not win. At the age of 70, Maggie Walker passed away on December 15, 1934 from diabetic gangrene.
Her entire life Maggie was an activist focused on improving the lives of members of the black community. Focused on fiscal responsibility, she worked to help her community flourish. Throughout Jackson Ward and the city, the evidence of her work can be seen and felt. Finally, on July 15th her life and life’s work will be publicly commemorated with a monument.