Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman in the United States to become a president of a local bank, was born July 15, 1867 in Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. She was a daughter of former slaves, Elizabeth Draper Mitchell and William Mitchell, who worked in the mansion of the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew. After a few years of living at the mansion, her father got a job as the head waiter at the Saint Charles Hotel and the family moved to a small house in town. Her father was murdered, presumably a victim of robbery and her mother supported herself and her two children with her laundry business while Maggie helped with the chores. In addition, Maggie attended the Lancaster School and then the Armstrong Normal School. After graduation in 1883, she taught at the Lancaster School until her marriage to Armstead Walker, Jr., a building contractor, in September 1886. They subsequently had three sons, though one died in infancy. She also became an agent for an insurance company, the Woman’s Union.
Since the age of fourteen, she had been a member of the Grand United Order of St. Luke, an African-American fraternal and cooperative insurance society founded in Baltimore in 1867 by a former slave, Mary Prout, with headquarters established in Richmond in 1889. The order had been established to assure proper health care and burial arrangements of its members and encouraged self-help and racial solidarity. Walker worked her way up until, in 1899, she became the executive secretary-treasurer of the organization, now renamed the Independent Order of St. Luke. The order was in debt at the time so she accepted a reduced salary of eight dollars per month.
In 1902, she started publishing a newsletter, the St. Luke Herald to increase awareness of the activities of the organization and to help in the educational work of the order. The following year, she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and became its president. The bank’s goal was to facilitate loans to the community. By 1920, the bank helped purchase about 600 homes. By 1924, the Independent Order of St. Luke had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, a staff of 50 working in its Richmond headquarters and assets of almost $400,000. The Penny Savings Bank absorbed all other black-owned banks in Richmond in 1929 and became the Consolidated Bank and Trust Companany with Walker as its chairman of the board.
In 1912, she helped found the Richmond Council of Colored Women and served as its president. The council raised money for the support of Janie Porter Barrett’s Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls and for other philanthropies. She was a member of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, the National Association of Wage Earners, National Urban League and the Virginia Interracial Committee. She also cofounded the Richmond branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Walker suffered more personal tragedies in her life. In 1907, she fell on the front steps of her home and injured her knees. The damaged nerves and tendons continued to trouble her for the rest of her life. She also suffered from diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair after 1928. Her husband died in 1915 when her son, Russell Ecles Talmage, mistook his father for a prowler on the porch and shot him. Russell was acquitted of the murder charge, but he never recovered from this ordeal and he died in 1923.
Walker died in Richmond, Virginia, on December 15, 1934. The cause of her death was listed as “diabetes gangrene.” The house her family occupied from 1904 to 1934 is now a Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and is located at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street.