Black History Makers: Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker (

Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman to found a bank. She was born Maggie Lena Draper on July 15, 1864 in Richmond, Virginia. Maggie’s mother Elizabeth was a former slave who worked as an assistant cook. Her father Eccles Cuthber was a reporter for the New York Herald and Irish-American. The two never married, instead shortly after Maggie’s birth, her mother married William Mitchell, a butler. Maggie also had a half-brother named Johnnie Mitchell. 

The family moved away from the Van Lew estate and into their own small home when William Mitchell became the headwaiter at St-Charles Hotel. Shortly after the family experienced tragedy when William was found drowned in a river. It was ruled a suicide but his wife Elizabeth was adamant he was murdered.

Widowed with two children, Elizabeth fell quickly into poverty. She began a laundry business and Maggie helped her mother by delivering clean laundry to her white patrons. During this time Maggie’s eyes were opened to the inequality of life between white and Black people. She was quoted as saying, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.”

While she was not afforded every luxury, Maggie was able to attend several newly built schools for African Americans. These included Lancasterian (Valley School), Navy Hill School, and Richmond Colored Normal School. She graduated from the latter after completing a teacher’s training program, and taught for three years at the Valley School. When she married Armstead Walker in September of 1886, she was forced to quit teaching because marriage was against school employment policy. The couple had three biological sons and one adopted daughter.

Maggie was an influential community member due to active memberships in National Association of Wage Earners, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League. She also climbed the ranks of the Independent Order of Saint Luke, eventually being elected Worthy Grand Secretary, the highest leadership position. The organization was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time and losing members, but under Maggie’s leadership the organization grew from 1,080 members in 1899 to over 100,000 members by the mid-1920s. 

Maggie was on a mission to benefit her community through education, employment, and access to financial resources. Using her position at the Independent Order of St. Luke, she went on to found St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, The Saint Luke Herald, and a department store called St. Luke Emporium. She offered employment to black women outside of housework and menial wages, including the ability to work as stenographers, accountants, journalists, and secretaries. It is worth noting that Maggie managed to keep St. Luke Penny Savings by merging with two other Black owned banks just before the Great Depression after noticing a decline in assets.

After establishing a long and successful entrepreneurial legacy, Maggie died on December 15, 1934, at age 70, in Richmond, Virginia.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.