This week, MWBC is highlighting another incredible African-American female entrepreneur—Maggie Lena Walker. When she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, Maggie became our country’s first African-American woman to charter and preside over a bank. But that was only one part of her story of lifelong activism and support for the black community.
Born in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia, Maggie likely gained her entrepreneurial spirit from her mother who began a laundry business to provide for her family after Maggie’s father died in 1876. Maggie offered to leave school and work, but her mother insisted that she finish her education first. Maggie attended Lancaster School, one of the two black schools in Richmond, and supported the family business by delivering clean clothes after school.
Around age 14, Maggie joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization that would later change the trajectory of her life. At that time, the order provided healthcare and death benefits to the African-American community. Maggie, a natural leader, organized a youth division that performed community service as a way to instill the value of social responsibility. She also organized an effort towards racial equality when she and her classmates petitioned to graduate in the Richmond Theater, like their white student counterparts. Although the petition failed, her class graduated in their school’s auditorium instead of the local church as was the custom—a significant and historic accomplishment in activism.
Upon graduation, Maggie returned to Lancaster School as an educator. She taught for three years until she married Armstead Walker Jr. and was forced to give up her position due to school policy. Armstead made a good living, and Maggie focused her time on the Independent Order of St. Luke. Her responsibility grew, and by 1899, she was named Grand Secretary, the order’s highest leadership position. When she took charge, the organization was essentially bankrupt, owning $400 to creditors and holding only $31 in assets. While others felt the order had served its purpose, Maggie saw it an as opportunity for growth and the chance to serve the African-American community even more.
She developed a three-tiered plan, which brought financial stability to the order and helped unite the African-American community and improve its economy. First, she founded a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, to educate the community about important social issues such as equality for blacks and women. In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as its president, making her the first African-American woman to charter a U.S. bank. She was also one of the first African-American women who excelled in a business industry—banking—that wasn’t specifically aimed at female consumers. In the final piece of her plan, she created the St. Luke Emporium, a department store that offered affordable products and employed black women. The store made a powerful economic impact on Richmond’s African-American community and helped many families.
Maggie Lena Walker was a woman of many firsts who dedicated her life to achieving positive social change in her community and reducing the equality divide between blacks and whites. During African American History Month, Maryland Women’s Business Center remembers Maggie Lena Walker as one of the early entrepreneurial pioneers in the banking and finance industry and—through MWBC’s training, counseling, and resources—carries on the spirit of helping women build a successful business and achieve financial independence.