The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about African American banker Maggie Walker and her impact on the banking industry. I’m always glad to see her get recognition for her hard work in banking and her leadership in civil rights.
One of the things I also admire about her was her strong sense of history. Its not something she is known for, but she clearly valued it and used it. Maybe it was because she grew up in the early years of Reconstruction and saw the implementation of Jim Crow. Maybe it was because she lived in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy. Maybe she just had that innate ability to understand the significance of events and the importance of understanding the past. Maybe it’s a bit of all of this.
Born in Richmond in 1864, Maggie Walker attended the city’s segregated public schools, then went into teaching, and later became active in the Order of St. Luke, a benevolent society that provided aid during times of illness or death. She rose to be the head of this national group.
Maggie Walker dedicated herself to providing economic opportunities for women, and activism for civil rights for African Americans. She is most well-known for founding a bank, providing Richmond’s African American community with a place to get loans, secure their savings, and gain financial independence. She also created a store, where black customers were well treated and black women could be employed. She also ran her own newspaper, which promoted her various causes.
Throughout her life, Maggie was keenly aware that what she and her colleagues were doing was groundbreaking. They were living at a special moment, crossing the line from slavery to freedom, and taking the initiative for social justice, political activity, and economic opportunity. In one speech, she spoke of how “. . .with only forty years in which our bodies have been our own, with the stench of slavery . . . not yet out of our nostrils . . .” She always urged action to her audience, not letting the gains they have made slip away.
Opportunities for women were especially important to her. In another speech she said, “Think of though what the Negro woman as come! From the time she landed at Jamestown, until Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the word ‘HOME’ and the word ‘FAMILY,’ had no earthly meaning so far as the Negro woman was concerned.” She understood the sufferings of generations past, and that freedom and opportunity were recent, and fledgling.
Maggie participated in Memorial Day commemoration at Richmond National Cemetery, which holds the remains of white and black Union soldiers who died in the battles around Richmond, and in its prisons. Why did she go? She had no relatives there, and in fact had no family who served in the U.S. military. Perhaps she went out of her way to remember those who fought to end slavery. Perhaps she felt it was important to keep the tradition of the commemoration going strong, as Lost Cause ideology was growing throughout Virginia and Richmond. Whatever the reason, I think its fascinating that she did. She clearly understood the importance of the war to her and her people, and the importance of remembering.
Excerpt from Maggie Walker’s 1918 Diary. At the top she writes of visiting the National Cemetery on Memorial Day. NPS.
Maggie Walker’s house is preserved at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, with a visitor center and exhibits. Currently the house may be seen from the outside, and rangers are on duty 10-2 from, Tuesday-Saturday outside to answer questions and talk about her life and legacy.