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Speaking of the Economy
Maggie L. Walker
Speaking of the Economy
Feb. 22, 2023

Maggie Walker: Richmond's Banking Pioneer

Audience: General Public

Ethan Bullard tells the story of Maggie L. Walker, focusing on her legacy as a bank executive, entrepreneur, and activist who fought systemic discrimination against women and blacks. Bullard is curator at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Va.


headshot of Ethan Bullard

Ethan Bullard


Tim Sablik: Hello, I'm Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed. My guest today is Ethan Bullard, curator at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond. Ethan, welcome to the show.

Ethan Bullard: Thanks for having me. It's an honor to be here.

Sablik: It's Black History Month and I'm delighted for you to join me to talk about the life and legacy of Maggie Walker, the first black woman in the United States to establish a bank. She founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which opened in Richmond's Jackson Ward district in 1903. My colleague John Mullin wrote about Maggie Walker in our most recent issue of Econ Focus magazine, and we'll put a link up to that story on the show page. As we'll discuss today, she was a pioneer in many respects.

To start, I wanted to ask about your career path, Ethan. What drew you to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site?

Bullard: First, I should mention that the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park Service. It's one of the 424 sites that we have across the country.

I wish I could say it was my familiarity with Maggie Walker's story that attracted me to the Park Service, but it was actually the other way around. Like a lot of people, I was not familiar with Maggie Walker's story before visiting the museum here.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where Martin Luther King was a hometown hero and where his home is preserved as a national park site. Then I studied American history at Bowdoin College, specifically 19th century American history. Despite my consistent exposure to black history and the evolution of the civil rights movement, Maggie Walker was just not a household name for me. She's often omitted from history books and documentaries. Fortunately, that is starting to change.

I moved to Richmond in late 2007, having left behind a very short-lived career in film and television production in Los Angeles. Fortunately, this is a city and a state just steeped in history. I was able to fall back on my academic background of history and was delighted to get hired by the Park Service 15 years ago, beginning with giving tours, house tours of Maggie Walker's house. So, I had to get caught up on her story.

Filmmaking is nothing if not storytelling, and that's exactly what we do here. And as a curator, I protect, preserve, research and exhibit Mrs. Walker's artifacts and her archives so that we can illustrate her story with her material culture and, therefore, broadcast her legacy to the thousands of annual visitors we meet.

Sablik: Great. Can you tell us about Walker's early life and the environment that she grew up in?

Bullard: Her story reads like a work of fiction at first. She was born in the last year of the Civil War in the capital of the Confederacy — her birthday was July 15, 1864. Her biological father was an Irish-born white man, a Confederate soldier. Her mother was an African American teenager, a formerly enslaved young lady working as a domestic servant in the home of the notorious Unionist, spy and abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew.

Walker's early life — in fact, much of her whole life — was really defined by personal hardship. Her white father had no hand in raising her. Four years later, her mother married an African American man named William Mitchell. Unfortunately, he was killed on his way home from work when young Maggie was only 11. This left behind a single mother that had to rear two children with very few job opportunities for her. So, she took in laundry from other families at their homes and, with the assistance of her children, delivered them. As Walker would say later in multiple speeches, that she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth but with a laundry basket practically upon her head.

Walker grew up during Reconstruction in the shadow of slavery, an institution with a legacy that shaped nearly all aspects of black life. This was a time of deeply entrenched systemic racism with separate and unequal, often inferior public spheres of employment and education, housing and health care.

Despite the prevalence of institutional racism, Walker also grew up in the first generation of African Americans to benefit from public school. She attended Richmond's public school system, which was an outgrowth of the Freedmen's Bureau schools. These were schools started by the government run by the Freedmen's Bureau and eventually evolving into the city's public school system. She also benefited from exposure to a burgeoning black leadership class with strong black role models in the form of schoolteachers and church pastors and leaders of fraternal organizations like the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization whose very name will soon become synonymous with Walker's own name.

Sablik: That's a good segue to the next part of her life. What was the Independent Order of St. Luke and how did it influence the rest of Walker's life and career?

Bullard: The Independent Order of St. Luke, or the IOSL for short, was one of many black fraternal orders established by and in black communities after the Civil War, after the end of slavery. These were benevolent societies that essentially offered mutual aid mechanisms for communities to pool their limited resources to help individuals in times of need, especially by providing funeral and burial fees for the deceased.

You've got to remember these are formerly enslaved populations, generations without wealth [and] limited to no income, limited to no savings, no health insurance, no life insurance. So, the IOSL, like other fraternals, were completely antithetical to slavery. They offered something totally new and totally novel: community and camaraderie, the ability to assemble, a sense of belonging, strength in numbers, leadership and advancement opportunities, and a framework for some level of economic security.

In the case of the IOSL, it was started up in Baltimore in 1867, a few years after the war, by a woman named Mary Prout. Then it began to spread south, coming into Virginia. That's where Walker will pick it up. She'll join as a teenager, joining through her church, First African Baptist Church, which was a local incubator for black progress in Reconstruction-era Richmond.

After getting married in 1886 to a man named Armstead Walker, Maggie Walker is going to be forced to step down from her job, which was as a public middle school teacher. This was an opportunity for her to start building her own family.

But [Walker] starts to also invest some of her natural strengths and talents in this organization that, again, she had joined a few years earlier. In the IOSL, she will eventually rise through the local ranks. She's going to earn an income as one of their paid clerks. She will formalize a juvenile division. By 1899, she's elected as the top leader of the organization at their annual convention. She'll earn the title "Right Worthy Grand Secretary." She'll eventually become the "Right Worthy Grand Secretary Treasurer."

The IOSL, at this point, right at the turn of the century, was really on the brink of collapse. They only had about 1,000 adult members, a little over $31 in their treasury and owing $400 in debt. So, there was a lot of the old guard leadership that thought that organization had served its purpose. They were ready to call it a day, throw in the towel.

Walker instead said no. She saw an opportunity here to really reinvigorate the order, an opportunity to, as she said, raise something beyond points of order. She saw that the organizational structure could be used as an engine of economic empowerment. Two years later, after rising to this top position, she's going to spell out this big plan in her 1901 address at their annual convention to expand the order's insurance offerings and then to expand the membership base. She's going to launch membership campaigns up and down the East Coast and then eventually start a series of black-owned businesses — beginning with a newspaper, a general store and, most notably, her bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.

Sablik: Right. And that bank would become a big part of her legacy. How did Walker get involved in banking?

Bullard: We think of her as a pioneering banker, and she most certainly was. But the concept of using a fraternal order to launch banks and businesses was not uniquely hers. In fact, Richmond is already known in her time as the birthplace of black banking. A man named William Washington Browne in 1888 launched the nation's first black bank right here, down the street from Mrs. Walker's home. He did that through his organization, the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers. Other fraternities took on that model, so other black banks did develop here in Richmond.

As a clerk and later a secretary for the IOSL, Walker already had a grasp of financial management, something that she would then bolster with night classes in accounting as she was preparing to open her bank. Leading right up to the opening of the bank, Walker is invited to shadow the operations at Merchants National Bank of Richmond, which was a very prosperous, white-owned bank run by an esteemed banker named John P. Branch.

Sablik: What role did banks play in the segregation of Walker's time and how did her bank seek to combat that financial segregation?

Bullard: Well, it's important to emphasize just how pervasive racial discrimination and racial profiling was in a segregated society. [Here is] a good example I just stumbled on that I think helps illustrate this. In 1901, the city was eager to create a public library, which was an expensive endeavor. The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie offered the city $100,000 to build this public library with one stipulation — it had to be an integrated facility. And the city said, no, thank you. The next year, Carnegie doubled down — he offered $200,000 for the city to build a public library. Again … it had to be an integrated facility and the city said no, thank you. They ultimately did not build a public library until 1925 and, of course, completely segregated two different branches for black patrons and white patrons. This really speaks to how firmly entrenched that attitude was.

During Jim Crow, banks were no exception to that attitude. Black customers could face outright exclusion, predatory lending practices, arbitrary and discretionary terms and fees. So, when thinking of Richmond's black population, we must remember that the well-dressed, well-spoken figure of Maggie Walker was an exception, not the rule. Richmond was starting to earn that reputation, as I mentioned, as the birthplace of black capitalism but was still very much comprised of a poor and working-class population. Frankly, it would not have been unheard of for a white banker to take one look at a factory worker or a farmhand or a washer woman and flatly deny them entrance to the bank.

What Walker created through her bank were features that directly addressed the needs of the black community here in Richmond, offering a model for other black communities far and wide. She created employment options for middle-class professions. These are cashier positions, tellers, clerks and bookkeepers. These were positions that were unavailable elsewhere. In fact, at the time that Walker opened her bank, the turn of the century, in the 1900 census 90 percent of Richmond's working age black women were employed as factory workers or domestic servants or other types of menial positions doing menial labor.

Walker is creating something brand new, a completely different outlook, different expectations for what black women could participate in. The bank offered checking and savings accounts to female account holders and often also encouraged women to be co-signers of their husband's loans. The bank also offered low down payments for mortgages, something that makes it a little more affordable for home loans as well as business loans. She would also keep the bank open for late hours, sometimes as late as 10 PM, to accommodate the schedules of industrial workers and other menial professions that otherwise not might not be able to escape work to do their banking.

Lastly, she fostered financial literacy programs for youth. She issued pocket banks that could be filled at home and then brought into the bank to open a savings account. She believed that fiscally responsible children would grow to become fiscally responsible adults and, to use the slogan of the juvenile division that she established, "as the twig is bent, the tree is inclined."

Sablik: How successful was her bank?

Bullard: The bank was extremely successful. Symbolically, the success of the bank cannot be overstated.

Sablik: Sure.

Bullard: While there were a handful of other banks in the nation that were either run by or in some cases started by white women, Walker's St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was something totally novel. This is a bank chartered and run by an African American woman, the daughter of a former enslaved woman, in the former capital of the Confederacy in the depths of the Jim Crow era, launched specifically to respond to the concerns of black customers.

This biography of Walker's and of the banks was used repeatedly, especially in the black press, to tell Walker's ambitions and her rise to success and her vision for community uplift. Walker was one of those visionaries who preferred to lead by example, and the bank was a living, physical example of her vision in action.

Operationally, the bank was also a success, with Walker's business acumen paying off tremendously. She was fastidious and meticulous and kept her bookkeeping in immaculate order. She survived surprise audits from state inspectors. She once famously kept her clerks at the office until midnight until they could account for a five-cent discrepancy in their books.

By the mid-1920s, at the bank's pre-Depression height, it had assets valued at roughly half a million [dollars], or approximately $8.5 million adjusted for inflation. Likewise, the IOSL — remember with its piddly $31 when Walker took over — by the mid-1920s they had over $8.6 million in assets or roughly $147 million today.

But the real impact was at the individual level. [It was] the dollars and cents saved by or deposited via loans to everyday, working-class black families; mortgages for homeownership; the investment capital for small, black startup businesses; or just the type of everyday lending needed to keep black families above water — loans for hospital bills, loans for construction and home improvement, and loans for education. Through sound fiscal management, the St. Luke bank prospered where other black and small banks had failed.

Under Walker's leadership, they also responded to global stressors, including the stock market crash of 1929. Beginning in late '29, Walker is going to conduct a series of mergers with the remaining black-owned banks, two other banks, ultimately forming Consolidated Bank and Trust. With those combined assets, they weathered the storm of the Great Depression. Even after Walker passes away in 1934, Consolidated will continue to grow, they'll expand. They'll have two branches, eventually one down in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and another one in the East End of Richmond. It'll last all the way until the first decade of the 21st century, earning the distinction as the nation's longest run, continually owned black-owned bank.

Sablik: Yeah.

Walker obviously lived before the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s that many of us are familiar with. But what are some other ways that she advocated for black civil rights in her day?

Bullard: Launching the bank was really just one facet of Walker's vision for economic empowerment. In addition to the insurance features of the IOSL, we discussed the other businesses that she launched — a general store called the St. Luke Emporium and a weekly newspaper, black-run newspaper called the St. Luke Herald.

Just like with the bank in the IOSL offices, the Emporium was another job generator with salesclerks and cashiers, and millinery and stockroom positions. It's a three-story brick building in downtown Broad Street, staffed by black men and women where black customers could come in, could walk through those front doors, could try on clothes, could return clothes, that you can use dark skinned wax mannequins in their display windows.

During those five years of operation, Walker also moved her bank into the Emporium building, in fact all the way at the back of the first floor. So, the idea maybe [was] encouraging a bank customer to do a little shopping while there, or perhaps if you're there to shop consider getting a savings account while you're there. All of this represents a distillation of Walker's vision to work in a black business, support black businesses and ensure that every penny, every nickel, every dime, every dollar generated by the black community stays in the black community.

While the Emporium was certainly local in its impact and influence, the St. Luke Herald, the newspaper, on the other hand, had a much further reach. This was something that Walker launched in 1902. It was really an important way to reach the expanding membership base of the IOSL. Under Walker's leadership, she's going to build that organization to just under 100,000 members stretched over half the country. For a population that's already scattered by diaspora, for a population that is experiencing the Great Migration and spreading into cities up north and points further west, the St. Luke Herald was a way to reach those folks through paid subscriptions, mail order subscriptions.

It was a way to tout the successes of the IOSL. The cover page would usually tout [the] amount of death benefits that they had paid out to date as a way to tout their success and attract new members. They'd also have society pages and some local news from Richmond.

Also, the paper became a platform for civil rights advocacy and Jim Crow criticism in the form of editorials. I think the most compelling example of that … is when Walker used her newspaper, along with another black paper here in Richmond, the Richmond Planet. Together those two papers motivated the black population, inciting them to boycott the segregated streetcar system between 1904 and 1906.

She was well aware of the political limitations of her constituents. Black women, for the most part, did not have the right to vote until the 19th Amendment and black men were extremely limited in their voting, especially after the 1902 revised state constitution in Virginia.

With a limited political voice, Walker explored creative ways to bring about change. Walker championed civic engagement and education as pillars of racial uplift and gender advancement. She encouraged in a 1914 article in her St. Luke Herald that "the greatest power on earth for the writing of wrongs is the power of agitation." She will champion local causes immediately impacting the black community here. She picketed grocery stores with discriminatory hiring practices. Perhaps her earliest exercise in collective action was when she participated in the student strike when she completed high school in 1883, protesting the segregated graduation facilities.

On a larger stage, Walker traveled the country. She would deliver lectures and public addresses at rallies, using her inspirational oratory skills not just to extol the IOSL and recruit new members but to espouse her vision of black self-help and generally to champion race pride and racial uplift. She also held leadership roles in and made financial contributions to a variety of civil rights organizations.

Sablik: A very full life, indeed. If you had to, how would you summarize her overall legacy today?

Bullard: I don't know if I can distill it into a sound bite, so I will give you a long-winded answer if you're okay with that.

First, there's the universal legacy. Walker demonstrated how hard work and faith and perseverance and cooperation can be used to overcome hardships of all shapes and sizes in our lives. It's something that we try to impart on our visitors when we share her story.

We didn't discuss this yet. In addition to losing Walker's stepfather when she was a young girl, she also lost her younger brother. She'll eventually lose her mother. She lost her husband tragically when their oldest son mistook him for a burglar and shot and killed him. Then tragically, that son is going to die at a young age about 11 years before Mrs. Walker passes away. And on top of all that, she's lost the use of her legs. She was suffering for what was a long time undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes and eventually required the use of a wheelchair to increase her mobility.

When you think of all of those personal adversities, let alone the systemic injustices that she's facing, it's amazing to me that she even had the strength to get out of bed, let alone to run multiple businesses, raise a family and build a community.

But more specifically, I think of Walker's legacy in terms of building a black middle class. She created a means for building financial security and generational wealth that can be passed down. She helped build a bridge from Reconstruction to the modern civil rights movement. It's a span that we in our history books often gloss over. We go to the end of the Civil War, end of slavery, Reconstruction and then "bam," next you know we're talking about Rosa Parks. It's like, wait a minute, we just skipped over a century's worth of progress and setbacks. The black middle class was essential for some of those legislative and judicial victories of the '50s and '60s. The death blow to Jim Crow could not have happened without a black middle class. It's a class that had to be practically invented from the ground up by progressive thinkers and doers like Maggie Walker.

Sablik: Ethan, thank you very much for coming on the show to talk about and share Maggie Walker's life and work.

Bullard: Thanks. Thanks for inviting me. It was really my pleasure. Thanks for showing such an interest.

Sablik: Listeners who are interested in learning more about Maggie Walker can check out that link to our Econ Focus article on the show page. Anyone who's listening locally in Richmond can certainly visit the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review.

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