On July, 15 1864, Maggie Lena Draper was born in Richmond, Virginia, on the Van Lew estate, in the St. John’s Church Historic District. Walker’s parents were Elizabeth Draper and Eccles Cuthbert. Walker’s mother, Elizabeth Draper was a formerly enslaved woman who worked as an assistant cook for Elizabeth Van Lew. Her father Eccles Cuthbert was a reporter for the New York Herald newspaper living in Virginia. Draper and Cuthbert met on the Van Lew estate. They never married and only produced one child together, according to my sources. Shortly after Walker was born, her mother married a man named William Mitchell who worked on the Van Lew estate as a butler. In 1870, William Mitchell and Elizabeth Draper produced a son, Johnny Mitchell. William Mitchell received a job as the head waiter at the Saint Charles Hotel, one of the most distinguished hotels in Richmond. William was able to move his family off of the Van Lew estate and into a small house near the Medical College of Virginia. Tragedy struck the Mitchell household in February of 1867. William Mitchell’s body was found floating in a river. His death was ruled self-inflicted, but Elizabeth Mitchell believed very strongly that her husband was killed. Following the death of William Mitchell, Elizabeth struggled to provide for her two children and her family was forced into poverty. To provide for her family, Elizabeth started a laundry business washing and drying clothes for white families. Walker would often help her mother by returning the clean and dried clothes to their owners. While transporting the cleaned clothes, Walker noticed a stark difference in the quality of living between blacks and whites.
“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head”, is a quote from Maggie Walker. A quote that explains her childhood. A time in her life that left a lasting impression, and inspired her to become a highly-successful woman. Walker received an education that can be thought of as privileged, despite living in poverty. She attend the newly formed Richmond Public Schools that were founded for black people and children to learn. She was in the number of black children who were able to attend school. Walker attended the Lancasterian School, the Navy Hill School, and the Richmond Colored Normal School. She graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883, where she was trained to be a teacher. For three years, Walker taught at the Lancasterian School to make a living for herself. Walker met a man named Armstead Walker Jr., the two became a couple, then were married on September 14, 1886. Armstead worked as a construction worker while Maggie Walker worked as a teacher, until she was forced to quit her job. The Lancasterian School had a policy that married women could not teach. Maggie and Armstead produced three sons and adopted a daughter. The Walker’s were able to purchase a home for their family in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, which was thought of as the “Harlem of the South”. Before graduating from the Richmond Colored Normal School, Walker became a member of The Independent Order of St. Luke, which was a subgroup of The United Order of St. Luke, an organization that focused on providing resources and care for the sick and dying.
At the time, the previously mentioned sororities were dedicated to helping black Americans advance in society. Walker, believed in focusing on our children and raising them up with the proper tools and education to be productive black citizens. Walker became the Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke after the organization voted to replace William M.T. Forrester, because the organization was going bankrupt. Maggie Walker was a dedicated and focused leader. When she became Deputy Secretary of The Order it was in debt, but not only did she pull the organization out of debt, but she was able to raise over $3.5 million dollars during her tenure. She also expanded the organization by 100,000 members. In August of 1901, Walker gave a speech that would become iconic. She addressed The Order and gave her plans to expand The Order, but also uplift her community by founding a bank, newspaper, and department store. All owned and operated by black people. Within five years of giving her plans, Walker led her community to establishing their bank, newspaper, and department store. Self-sufficiency was Walker’s goal for her people. The St. Luke Herald was established in 1902, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, and the St. Luke Emporium in 1905. The establishing of these businesses made a huge impact on the economics of black Richmond. Black people were able to not only provide the necessities for their families, they also built enough wealth to create a middle class. To help The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank survive the Great Depression, Walker merged the bank with two other banks creating the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker often faced challenges because of operating a successful black owned business in the Southern United States in the early 1900s. A white fraternity attempted to start a bank similar to what Walker was able to do. The white fraternity failed, as a result, a new mandate was enacted, from then on fraternal organizations and banks had to be separate entities. Because Walker’s vision was working so well, the bank was able to be separated from The Order because of the support of the members, also the department store and the newspaper was still successful.
The St. Luke Emporium was forced to close down in 1911 because white business owners were jealous of Walker’s successful plans. Black people in Richmond were terrorized and threatened if they continued to patronize the St. Luke Emporium. Tragedy struck the Walker family in 1915, Maggie and Armstead’s son Russell Walker mistakenly shot and killed Armstead because he thought he was breaking into their home. Russell was tried but found not guilty of murder. That event negatively affected Russell’s mental health until his death in 1923. Maggie Walker was diagnosed with diabetes and later bound to a wheelchair because her health was continuing to fail her. Despite her health, Walker remained a force for change in black America. She continued to advocate for and assist in the advancement of black people in America. She co-founded the Richmond chapter of the NAACP and Council of Colored Women. She helped organize a bus boycott in 1904 that caused a Richmond bus company to go out of business. In 1921, Walker tried her hand at politics, as one of the candidates running on what was called the “lilly black republican ticket”. Walker was running for superintendent of public instruction but did not win the election. On December 15, 1934, Maggie Lena Walker died. She left behind a legacy that black people today can be proud of. She didn’t just talk about uplifting her community, she literally did it. Creating a bank, newspaper, and department store for her people to operate and patronize, that brought money into their community, helping their community to thrive, is exactly the example we need to change our situation. To the brilliant and brave leader, who literally lifted her people out of poverty, Mrs. Maggie Lena Walker, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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