Maggie Walker’s journey ‘up on the rough side of the mountain’

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/29/maggie-walkers-journey-up-on-the-rough-side-of-the-mountain/

Faced with the oppressive challenges that plagued Maggie Walker (1864-1934), most people would react with defeatist resignation or bitter resentment. Not so with this enterprising pioneer, the first African-American woman to charter a bank, which she founded to foster black entrepreneurism during the dreadful Jim Crow era. Devoted to public service, Walker took over a bankrupt charitable organization and transformed it into a 100,000 member organization spanning 24 states, and launched its bank, newspaper, and community store to improve the lives of her beleaguered community.

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but instead, with a clothes basket almost upon my head. I have come up on the rough side of the mountain.” — Maggie Walker

The daughter of a former slave and an Irish immigrant, Walker was born in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, and suffered tremendous personal loss throughout her life. Her adoptive father was murdered when she was young, her husband was killed, one child died in infancy, the other two died in their thirties, and she became wheelchair-bound from illness. Despite these hardships, Walker maintained an optimistic spirit, using her dynamic personality and savvy business skills to help the struggling black population.

Walker once said, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but instead, with a clothes basket almost upon my head. I have come up on the rough side of the mountain.” Her words were not merely figurative.

Walker’s mother, Elizabeth, offered a formidable and self-sacrificing example that helped forge the indomitable spirit of her daughter. Elizabeth was prevented from marrying Maggie’s father because of Virginia’s strict race laws.  After the loss of her husband, William Mitchell, Elizabeth assumed extra responsibilities to ensure a decent life for her children.

St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

Ajena Rogers, Supervisory Ranger at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, explained the circumstances. “I think Maggie Walker’s response to adversity in life began to take shape as she saw her mother’s response to the death of Maggie’s stepfather, William Mitchell. Her mother didn’t give up, but instead worked hard as a laundress to provide for her family and care for her children. Her mother, Elizabeth, also sacrificed to make sure both of her children got the chance to go to school, even though it would have been easier to have them stay and just work.”

But the extraordinary example of Walker’s mother was not the only factor to influence her later achievements. Rogers described how Maggie’s church and local community stepped in to assist the young family after her father’s tragic murder. “Little Maggie would also see how the community came together to help the family, and how the church community that she joined about the same time had so many people striving together to improve conditions for all.”

The kindness and support the family received from their community reinforced the admirable qualities Walker witnessed at home. Rogers elaborated further, “It was these principles of faith, family, and community, coupled with hard work, education and sacrifice put into ACTION, that you would see Mrs. Walker turn to throughout the rest of her life.”

“It was these principles of faith, family, and community, coupled with hard work, education and sacrifice put into ACTION, that you would see Mrs. Walker turn to throughout the rest of her life.” — Ajena Rogers

And it was action indeed that characterized Walker’s industrious approach to her numerous endeavors. With meticulous planning and copious initiative, Maggie rebounded from each setback by finding another outlet to serve her community. For example, when she married, Virginia law obliged her to resign from her job as a teacher. It was a blow to Walker, since her mother had sacrificed so much for her education at the segregated Richmond Colored Normal School. Maggie could have chosen to lead a comfortable life at home since her husband, Armstead Walker Jr., was a successful brick contractor.

Instead, Maggie decided to devote all her free time to the Independent Order of St. Luke, an African-American charitable society dedicated to the sick and elderly, which sponsored humanitarian causes that encouraged personal initiative and integrity. Walker joined the local council of the order when she was 14, and eventually rose to the top position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary, which she held until her death in 1934.

Maggie Walker and staffs of the Independent Order and St. Luke Bank. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

Maggie Walker and staffs of the Independent Order and St. Luke Bank. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

Over the years, Walker cultivated her position to foster economic independence in the African-American community. She understood that financial security was a key element for local people to thrive, and that home and business ownership required favorable loans. So she studied the banking and accounting practices of leading Richmond banks, and opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. It started with $9,000 in deposits, and within three years grew to $170,000.

Securing its future following the 1929 stock market crash, Walker merged the St. Luke Bank with two other African-American banks, forming the Commercial Bank and Trust Company and the Second Street Savings Bank. Under her leadership, the new bank flourished, and remained successful until its closure in 2011.

"St. Luke Herald" newspaper office. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

“St. Luke Herald” newspaper office. (Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

Walker traveled extensively to expand the St. Luke organization and to spread news of their good works. She co-founded a Juvenile Department, which grew to 20,000 young members, helping ensure the order’s long-term viability. Walker also promoted increased job access for women, employing them whenever possible in top positions, and donating funds for their school and university educations.

In addition to her other enterprises, Walker founded a weekly newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, and served as its editor-in-chief. The paper highlighted the organization’s charitable activities and exposed injustices against African-Americans.

As a social activist, Walker fought for racial and gender equality, and promoted increased educational and employment opportunities for the entire black community. Although she was an ardent defender of her causes, Maggie engaged all community leaders, whether black or white, with consummate professionalism and courtesy.

Maggie Walker remains a superb example of resistance against injustice, and stouthearted generosity in the face of adversity.

When diabetes confined her to a wheelchair, Walker added a home office and meeting rooms to her house so she could continue working when mobility was difficult. She refused to be held back by misfortune, and continued promoting worthy causes with unwavering determination.

After Walker succumbed to diabetes in 1934, her funeral was a major event in the city. Schools were let out early, traffic was re-routed, flags were lowered to half-mast, and even the mayor of Richmond stood in attendance, as thousands of people walked in solemn procession to honor the revered community leader.

Maggie Walker remains a superb example of resistance against injustice, and stouthearted generosity in the face of adversity. Her achievements are all the more remarkable considering she founded a bank and a newspaper 17 years before women had the right to vote, and helped build a prosperous African-American community at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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