Badass Lady Boss: Visiting the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is only about a mile and a half from my house. It’s my most local National Park. Still, it took me more than a decade of living in Richmond, Virginia, before my first visit, in 2015. I went again this past weekend, with out of town friends.
Before my first visit, I’d seen the name Maggie L. Walker around town. I knew the very basic of basics. I knew she was the first African American woman to charter a bank, that there’s a school named after her in Richmond and that her home is a National Park unit.
But that was pretty much it.
The short story of Maggie L. Walker is that she’s a legit boss. And a badass.
The longer story starts in 1864. Maggie Lena Mitchell was born in Richmond, just as the Civil War was starting to wind down. Her mother, Elizabeth, a former slave, worked for Elizabeth Van Lew, a Civil War spy, as an assistant cook. Her father was an Irish-born Confederate Soldier.
Maggie earned her education in Richmond’s public schools and helped her mother with her work as a laundress, often assisting in the delivery of clean clothes. She joined the Independent Order of St. Luke as a teenager, which promoted humanitarian causes and helped the sick and elderly.
She taught grade school for a few years before she was married, in 1886, and then shifted her focus to her family and working with the Independent Order of St. Luke. In 1899, she earned the top leadership position in that organization, becoming the Right Worthy Grand Secretary, a role she’d serve in until her death in 1934.
She started the St. Luke Herald in 1902, in order to improve communication between the Independent Order of St. Luke and the public. She also significantly increased membership during her tenure with the organization.
The next year she did the thing that’s her most cited accomplishment. She founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as the bank’s first president, which earned her the distinction of being the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States.
Hers wasn’t the first black-operated bank in Richmond – there had been a handful of others – but it was notable in that it was run by a black woman.
On the bank’s opening day, something like 300 people stood in line to open an account at St. Luke’s. Some people deposited a few hundred dollars, others just a handful of pennies, or a few dollars. In order to encourage fiscal responsibility and thrift in her community, Walker handed out penny banks to families in her neighborhood. Once full – they held 100 pennies – children could come and open an account at St. Luke’s.
The bank did a lot. It provided mortgages to black families and loans to black business owners and entrepreneurs. And the bank of course provided employment to local African Americans in a different sort of career field from the typical menial labor jobs available to black Richmonders.
The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank even survived the Great Depression. It merged with two other Richmond banks to become Consolidate Bank and Trust Company. Until 2005, it was “the oldest continually African American-operated bank in the United States,” according to the National Park Service.
Walker was also incredibly active in civil rights groups, working as an advocate for African American women and employing them in all of her business ventures. She served on boards for groups including the National Association of Colored Women, the Virginia Industrial School for Girls, and she served as vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP and was also a member on their national board.
Many of her accomplishments were achieved before women even had the right to vote, and yet, there she was – an African American woman in the former capital of the Confederacy – kicking ass and taking names.
Her home helps to tell her story. Walker was incredibly successful and her home shows it. She had the latest and greatest in technology, including a very fancy and new-fangled electric ironing machine.
Family was exceptionally important to her and so, as her family expanded, so did her home. She made several expansions and additions to her home over the years, with the largest happening in 1922.
In 1928, she had to start using a wheelchair, which she had outfitted with a desk so she could continue her work. She didn’t want to move her bedroom downstairs and leave her expansive suite upstairs, so she had an elevator installed, all within about two months of confinement to the wheelchair.
The ranger who gave us the tour helped to put things in perspective by talking about Walker’s mother, Elizabeth, who lived at the Leigh Street home with her daughter. Elizabeth was born a slave. In her lifetime she watched her daughter rise to prominence and be named alongside influential African Americans like W.E.B. Dubois, and lived her final years in one of the finest houses in Richmond.
Maggie Walker died in 1934 and her funeral was said to be the most-attended Richmond funeral since the Civil War.
Her family held on to her house and, in 1979, her grandchildren sold the home to the National Park Service, so that it might be preserved and the story of Maggie L. Walker could be shared with a wider audience. It opened to the public in 1984.
Today, something like 90% of the furnishings in the home are original, including the enormous and impressive stove in the kitchen. Just last month a statue of Walker was unveiled in downtown Richmond. It’s the first monument on a city street to be dedicated to a woman in the city of Richmond.
I think I love the story of Maggie Walker so much because I can’t even imagine it. I’ve been to the house twice. I’ve read articles about her and asked questions during the house tours, but still. That she accomplished so much, that she worked so hard to give back to her community, that she shared her success with so many others and helped others to establish their own success – it’s all just overwhelmingly amazing.
Plus, the park rangers at the Walker house are top-notch. It’s clear when you get the tour that they are experts on Ms. Walker: on her life, on her home, on her business ventures. I love the National Park Service and all that it does; I have an amazing experience each and every time I visit a National Park. Really. I love that shit. But, there’s definitely something special about the rangers at Maggie Walker’s house. They seem to genuinely love telling the story of Ms. Walker and their enthusiasm is infectious.
Admission to the site is free, but feel free to chuck a few dollars into the donation bin in the Visitor’s Center. Normal hours are Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., except November through February, when the park closes at 4:30 p.m. The site is closed on Sundays and Mondays.