Silhouette of African American female and text that notates Black History Month celebration

Voya Celebrates African American Pioneers: Maggie L. Walker

Maggie L. Walker was a pioneering entrepreneur, civil rights and women’s rights activist and the first woman of any race to charter and become president of a bank in the U.S. — the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.1 She overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to transform the state of banking in the middle of Jim Crow. Maggie L. Walker dedicated her life to closing the wealth gap and to empowering all Americans to achieve a more secure financial future…one penny at a time. This is her story.

Maggie Lena Walker was born Maggie L. Draper in Richmond, VA about a year before the end of the Civil War in 1864. While her biological father was Irish American, her mother, Elizabeth Draper was a former slave who later married William Mitchell— an African-American estate butler. Unfortunately, William’s untimely death in 1876 left the family impoverished. To provide for the family, Elizabeth Draper started a laundry business, and a young Maggie Walker helped by delivering the laundry to white patrons. This experience opened her eyes to the wealth gap and the difference in quality of life for Blacks vs Whites.

The Independent Order of St. Luke

Around the age of 14, Maggie began volunteering for the Independent Order of St. Luke —a mutual aid fraternal organization that offered educational and financial support to African Americans in need. She graduated high school in 1883 and married Armstead Walker three years later in 1886. During this time, Walker’s involvement with the Order continued to increase until she rose to be Grand Deputy Matron in 1895 and was elected as the leader and to the highest rank in 1899.2 Under her guidance, Walker would guide the Order from the brink of bankruptcy into an illustrious golden age over the next 20 years.

The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank

On November 2, 1903, Maggie L. Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which made her the first woman charter and become president of a bank in the U.S. With much fanfare and excitement on opening day, nearly 300 eager customers made deposits ranging from $0.31 up to hundreds that resulted in over $8,000 in deposits and $1,247.00 worth of stock being sold.3  To encourage healthy savings habits and teach the importance of thrift among children, Walker distributed penny banks to families. After children had 100 pennies in their bank, they could open their very own account. Within a year of opening, Walker was able to purchase a new building on Broad Street where deposits skyrocketed to more than $170,000 the first 12 months.4 One of the key focus areas of the bank was building wealth within the African-American community through home ownership. And due to the success of the bank by 1920, more than 600 home loans** had been issued. The Bank continued to thrive and grow over the next five years until they built a new building at First and Marshall Street in Jackson Ward where it would live for more than 60 years. After taking over two smaller banks in 1930 during the Great Depression, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank became Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which was the nation’s oldest Black-owned bank until it was sold in 2005. Unfortunately, Walker’s health began to decline in 1928, leading to wheelchair confinement. Nevertheless, she remained the president of St Luke’s Bank until she passed on in December of 1934.

Origins of Black History Month

Black History Month began in 1926 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an African American, promoted Negro History Week in February and the good people at Kent State University first observed it in 1970. In 1976, Black History Month (BHM) became a national month long holiday celebration when President Gerald Ford recognized “the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history” in a speech to mark the U.S. Bicentennial.

BHM also coincides with National Freedom Day (NFD), which is the day that President Lincoln signed the 13th amendment to abolish slavery on February 1. Major Richard Robert Wright Sr., a former slave, believed that freedom for all Americans should have a designated day. NFD is intended to promote harmony and equal opportunity among all citizens and to remember that ours is a nation devoted to the ideal of freedom.

1The first woman to start a bank — a black woman — finally gets her due in the Confederacy’s capital, 07/14/17, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/07/14/the-first-black-woman-to-start-a-bank-finally-gets-her-due-in-the-confederacys-capital/, last accessed 01/07/21

2Who Was Maggie Lena Walker, National Park Service, last accessed 01/07/2021, https://www.nps.gov/people/maggie-l-walker.htm

3The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, National Park Service, 01/04/2017, last accessed 01/07/2021 https://www.nps.gov/mawa/the-st-luke-penny-savings-bank.htm

4St. Luke Bank, Museum Collections Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, last accessed 01/07/2021, https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/maggie_walker/economic_empowerment_st_luke_bank.html


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