Written by Kevin Heisey
on February 15, 2023

In honor of Black History month, xScion celebrates the life and legacy of Maggie Lena Walker, a prominent businesswoman, early champion of women’s empowerment and community leader in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Born in 1864, Walker grew up during the Post-War reconstruction era when African Americans faced many barriers to full economic participation in society. While still in school, she became involved with the Independent Order of Saint Luke and rose through the ranks to the highest position of Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Order in 1899, a role she held for the rest of her life.

The Independent Order of Saint Luke was a mutual benefit society founded in 1867 by a former slave, Mary Prout, to aid the sick and provide proper burial benefits for the deceased. Walker expanded the organization’s activities in Richmond to eventually include economic development, banking, educational promotion and career development.

Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank

In 1902, Walker became the first woman in the US to both charter a bank and serve as a bank president when she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. The bank facilitated the economic and social development of the black community in Richmond by providing loans and financial services helping many families achieve financial stability and independence.

One of the bank’s objectives was to promote black home ownership. By 1920 the bank’s affordable loans resulted in 645 fully paid for homes.

Black Women’s Empowerment

As a progressive and free-thinking person, Walker advocated for the rights and economic empowerment of black women. She believed women earning a living would empower them and strengthen their marriages and families.

According to the 1900 US Census, 83% of black women were employed as domestics or in personal service. Walker promoted career choice, job opportunities and entrepreneurship by hiring black women to work for the Order of Saint Luke and the bank in positions not typically available for black women at the time. She established the Saint Luke Emporium, a store to provide quality goods to the black community at affordable prices, to provide additional jobs and growth opportunities for black women.

Walker had unconventional views for the era on women advocating for a widening occupational sphere. She took the radical perspective that a woman’s place in the working world should be wherever she wanted it to be, saying:

“there is neither justice or good common sense in the demand that every woman should confine her activities to the domestic duties of the home…than it is sensible to say every man should be a merchant. As ability, adaptability decides these things for men, so let them decide for woman.”

Economic Development and the Philosophy of Cooperation

In early 20th century Richmond, white-owned businesses would sell to blacks, but they would not hire or buy from blacks. Walker understood the economic power and potential of the black community and encouraged economic cooperation that combined the political action of boycott with community economic development to, in her words, “kill the lion of prejudice by ceasing to feed him.” She promoted economic cooperation to improve the welfare of black communities and envisioned great achievements through self-initiative and self-determination.

The Order of Saint Luke stood as an example of a mutually beneficial cooperative economic advantage. Walker aggressively recruited members to the Order, which increased the dues collected and the financial strength of the organization, allowing it to expand its activities in pursuit of its mission of serving the needs of the community.

In 2017, the city of Richmond dedicated the Maggie L. Walker Memorial Plaza which includes a 10-foot high bronze statue surrounded by 10 benches representing her multifaceted accomplishments. It’s a short walk to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond’s Jackson Ward. When you visit Richmond, be sure to visit and learn more about the life and legacy of Maggie Lena Walker.