More than 100 years later, the legacy of the first African American woman to own a bank remains a catalyst for economic advancement in the Black community.
In 1903, Maggie Lena Walker founded Richmond, Virginia-based St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming the first African American to charter a bank and serve as a bank president. She was respected as a leader whose successes and vision offered tangible improvements in the way of life for African Americans and women.
During her life Walker embarked on a mission to transform more employees into employers.
Harness economic power through freedom of the press
Born in the 1860s, Walker was determined to improve the lives of African Americans and women through financial education and empowerment. She encouraged investment and collective action, despite the tribulations that she and many others faced in the post–Civil War South because of the color of their skin.
Walker once said, “I was not born with a silver spoon in [my] mouth, but instead, with a clothes basket almost upon my head,” BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported. There is no doubt that her work has been the launching pad for the advancement of many Black leaders.
During this period, millions of freed slaves worked against laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and maintain white supremacy. The Black Codes enforced restrictions to prevent Black people from purchasing property and owning businesses. Essentially, these codes represented another level of oppression where Blacks could not participate in the essential pillars of wealth-creation in the United States.
“Time and conditions change so rapidly that unless we keep on the alert, ever working, watching, improving and learning, we will be left behind in the race of progress,” said Walker at the 34th Annual Session of the Right Worthy Grand Council of Virginia chapter of the Order.
In her teenage years, Walker joined the Independent Order of St. Luke’s, an African American fraternal order that helped the sick and elderly in Richmond and provided insurance to Black women who could not otherwise access it. Within the organization, Walker held many high-ranking positions, including executive secretary-treasurer. She was the only woman known to lead a major Black fraternal order at the time.
In 1902, Walker began publishing the organization’s newspaper, St. Luke Herald, as editor-in-chief. She not only carried news of the order to local chapters, but she encouraged African Americans in Richmond to harness their economic power by establishing their own institutions through the newspaper.
“What we need is an organ, a newspaper to herald and proclaim the work of our Order,” Walker said during the 1901 annual convention, BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported. “No business, no enterprise, which has to deal with the public, can be pushed successfully without a newspaper.”
She added, “We need consecrated men and women, who will raise something else besides points of order…we want an executive to run a factory, run a paper, run a bank, that will develop something and give some of the noble women work.”
Walker was also indispensable in organizing a variety of enterprises. She helped found the Richmond Council of Colored Women and raised large sums to support such institutions as Janie Porter Barrett’s Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls.
Use the power of the Black dollar to create economic independence
To encourage investment and collective action, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank offered what many Blacks couldn’t gain access to anywhere else: mortgages, investment capital, and checking accounts. From 1929 to 1930, the bank absorbed all other banks owned by African Americans in Richmond and became the Consolidated Bank and Trust Co.
Walker continued to serve as the bank’s chairman of the board. The long-standing institution would eventually be a leader on the BE Banks list.
Throughout Walker’s journey, she emphasized the importance of the Black dollar and how it could be used to create economic independence.
“First we need a savings bank. Let us put our moneys together; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves,” said Walker during the Independent Order of St. Luke Annual Convention in 1901. “Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
“Save a dollar more–and carry it to a Negro bank and deposit it. Save a dollar more–and you will have a prop upon which to lean when you grow weak from age,” Walker revealed in The St. Luke Herald newsletter. “Save a dollar more–because the more you save, the more you will want to save and the greater will be your ability to help yourself and someone else.”
On Dec. 15, 1934, Walker died from complications due to diabetes. Walker’s home in Richmond has since been designated a National Historic Site by the National Park Service.