Maggie Lena Walker’s story, and the organization to which she dedicated her life, begins in 1867 with a nation struggling to repair the ills of slavery. At age 14, Maggie Lena Draper Mitchell (her birth name) joined the local council of the African American fraternal society that later became the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL). She swiftly rose through its ranks to assume leadership as its Right Worthy Grand Secretary-Treasurer in 1890, and, as a result, became a pioneering insurance executive, financier, and civic icon at the turn of the 20th century.
Prior to 1890, the IOSL had 3,400 members, no reserve funds, no property, and a small staff. By the mid-1920s, Walker, a woman of boundless energy and spellbinding oratorical skills, almost single-handedly brought the IOSL to solvency. In 1903, she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, one of the nation’s oldest black-owned banking institutions in the United States. By 1924, at the peak of her leadership, she grew the IOSL membership to in excess of 70,000 in 1,500 local chapters. IOSL also boasted a staff of 50 working in its Richmond, Virginia, headquarters, with assets of more than $400,000, and payments of more than $1 million in death claims. Despite her failing health and limited mobility, Walker successfully shepherded St. Luke Penny Savings Bank through the Great Depression. She would eventually merge it with two other black banks based in Richmond to form Consolidated Bank and Trust (No. 20 on the BE BANKS list with $87.28 million in assets), the longest surviving black bank in the country.
This excerpt, from the book A Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment by the late Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe (Howard University Press; $29.95), professor of anthropology at Howard University, comes from chapter four, “Theory Into Action.” This chapter is but a snapshot of the life of Maggie Walker, a woman whose mother was born a slave. Walker spoke often about the financial empowerment of the Negro community. But she also did something practical toward creating economic wealth for that community. This month, we remember Walker, a true visionary.
— The Editors
As an incipiently revitalized and transformed [Independent Order] of St. Luke moved into the Progressive Era, the vision Maggie Walker so skillfully evoked in her speeches started to be shaped into, and enriched by, the experience of building business and service institutions. Walker and her colleagues spent these years crafting organizations, trying with minimal initial knowledge to learn rapidly enough to move on to the next step. In consonance with the national culture, their key developmental concept was business, a field that many black leaders and white well-wishers emphasized as a major potential avenue of upward mobility for the African American community. W.E.B. DuBois, in his report of the 1899 Atlanta Conference on “The Negro in Business,” called for the formation of a National Business Man’s League, an idea that Booker T. Washington made a reality in 1900 when he founded the National Negro