Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site | MAGGIE WALKER BIOGRAPHY

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker

The video below is the film shown at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site Visitor Center. I will leave the video to cover Walker’s biographical history, but there are a few observations about her life that I’d like to share. Walker is a historical figure that has largely been forgotten outside of Virginia, and particularly Richmond. She was certainly more popular in 1920 than in 2020. Today, very few people have ever heard of her, and were it not for the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, she surely would have been nothing more than a footnote in the history books. This is largely because she was a local community activist and not a major player on the national minority or women’s rights scene in the early part of the 20th century. I equate her to a very popular mayor. Everyone in the city may know the mayor, perhaps even many people in the state. Certainly all of the politicians and celebrities know the mayor, and maybe even the president. But ultimately, fifty years from now, unless the mayor goes on to become president, nobody is going to remember his or her name. That was the fate of Maggie Walker. However, popularity does not always equate to impact.

If you mention an unknown black historical figure, most people will automatically assume this person had something to do with the modern civil rights movement. Linking Walker to civil rights certainly would not be wrong, as she was a member of the NAACP and many other civil and women’s rights organizations, but this was not what Walker was all about. She was what is known today as a Black Conservative, and leaned more towards the philosophy of Marcus Garvey than Martin Luther King Jr. Garvey was for a complete separation of the white and black populations, and even wanted all blacks to return to Africa. The civil rights philosophy, on the other hand, is that black people should be treated as equal to white people and should be given the same opportunities, in a way being at the mercy of white people to provide such equality.

I’m not saying that Walker was a radical like Garvey, or even thought like him, and I may be the only person to put the two in the same sentence, but Walker’s philosophy was that black people did not need white people to succeed. She felt that through education, hard work, and good business sense that the black community—in her case Richmond—could stand and thrive on its own two feet. She was an educator with a knack for business. She took business classes on her own initiative. She joined the Independent Order of St. Luke—at the time a floundering charitable organization that helped the sick and elderly and provided burial services for those who could not afford a proper funeral—and turned it into one of the more successful charitable business operations in Richmond. Instead of begging for loans from white-owned banks, Walker had the idea to start a black-owned bank, where the money of those in the community could be pooled, thus keeping the profits in the community. She became the president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and later when the bank merged with two others during the Great Depression to form Consolidated Bank and Trust, the chairman of the Board of Directors. Walker was much more of a pioneer in the field of female business, and certainly black female business, than any sort of civil or women’s rights activist, though yes, she certainly was involved in such activities.

When Walker died in 1934, her funeral was supposedly one of the largest ever held in the city of Richmond up until that time. There is no doubt that she was a popular person in Richmond, and that she could count all prominent black leaders in the United States as her equal. Many came to dine at her house on East Leigh Street. But she was ultimately a local activist and a very successful businesswoman, and only a minor player on the national scene. That, however, does not lessen the impact she had on the black communities of Richmond.

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Last updated on April 8, 2020
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