Black History Month celebrations often focus on African American achievements in politics, culture and sports – business achievements, in general, and financial services accomplishments, in particularly, rarely get considered in this February spotlight. One prominent figure within the financial services world who should be highlighted during Black History Month – or, for that matter, in any month – is Maggie Lena Walker, who broke both racial and gender barriers in 1903 when she became the nation’s first female bank president.
A Slow Climb To Prestige: She was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, when the city was still the capital of the Confederacy. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a formerly enslaved woman working as a cook and domestic servant in the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a philanthropist who worked as a Union spy during the Civil War. Her father was Eccles Cuthbert, and Irish-born Confederate officer who later became a prominent journalist. The exact nature of her relationship with her father is unclear – during her life, she cited William Mitchell, a Black butler whom her mother married in 1868, as her father, although she would also give the name Eccles to one of her sons, thus suggesting some relationship existed.
Mitchell was killed in 1876 in a murder that was never solved, forcing Maggie’s mother to take on work as a laundress to support her family. At 14, Maggie became involved with the Independent Order of Saint Luke (IOSL), a fraternal benefit organization designed to provide assistance for Blacks who were in poor physical and financial health.
Walker graduated from Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883 and started work as a teacher, but after her marriage to contractor Armstead Walker in 1886 she was forced to give up her job because the law of the time prevented married women from teaching. Instead, she became actively involved in the IOSL, rising through the leadership ranks until she became the organization’s national leader in 1899. Walker also took correspondence courses in business and accounting to gain a better understanding of running an organization – the mail order education also helped her bypass restrictions that in-person schools placed on Blacks.
A Very Different Bank: Walker focused on encouraging Blacks to seek economic self-sufficiency, but this was difficult at a time when many financial institutions refused to originate mortgages, sell insurance policies or accept bank deposits from Black customers.
Walker saw the IOSL as a vehicle to encourage financial independence for the disenfranchised Black community in Jim Crow-era Virginia, stating in a speech, “Let us put our moneys together. Let us use our moneys, let us put our money out and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
Walker convinced a white manager of Richmond bank to show her how a bank operated. She spent several hours a week over a period of several months studying every aspect of operations until she felt confident that she could train new employees on their duties. She also sought to ensure that a large contingent of women would be employees of her new bank, thus offering job opportunities to Black women that transcended the occupational limits of their era.
St. Luke Penny Savings Bank became a state-chartered bank in July 1903, with Walker breaking double barriers by taking on the role of bank president. She had hoped for an opening day that would attract $75,000 in deposits – she brought in over $8,000, mostly from small sums brought in by 280 new customers. And while she was disappointed at her start, Walker pressed forward to make the bank successful.
A Force Of Change: Walker’s leadership role created mixed feelings within the white male world of early 20th century Virginia. On one hand, her executive abilities gained the respect of the local banking industry – she was invited to join the Virginia Bankers Association, a rare honor at the time, considering both her race and gender.
On the other hand, there were many in Richmond who were not eager to see Walker and the IOSL succeed. The organization also launched a newspaper and a department store at the time the bank was created, but threats and pressure from hostile white competitors eventually forced Walker to wind down both endeavors.
But the bank grew, slowly but surely. Many of its customers were low-income workers who trusted the bank with their wages – and Walker would keep the bank open late into the evening to accommodate many laborers who could not take time off from work during the day. The bank became the source of loans for Black residents in Richmond, many of whom were able to establish homeownership and start businesses because of Walker’s institution.
By the mid-1920s, the bank had roughly $500,000 in deposits – nearly $8 million in today’s money, and a considerable accomplishment when one considers the relatively meager sums acquired from its lower-income depositors.
A Lasting Legacy: Walker recognized the boom period of the 1920s was going to fizzle out, and in 1929 she began to coordinate a merger between St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and two other Black-owned banks in Richmond, Second Street Savings Bank and Commercial Bank and Trust. The three banks combined in 1931 as Consolidated Bank and Trust, with Walker serving as its chairwoman of the board of directors until she passed away in 1934.
Consolidated Bank and Trust continued operations as a Black-owned bank until 2005 when it was acquired by Abigail Adams National Bancorp, a white-owned company. In 2009, Adams was acquired by Premier Financial Bancorp Inc. of Huntington, West Virginia – which, in turn, was acquired last April by Peoples Bancorp Inc. PEBO of Marietta, Ohio.
Walker’s legacy is evident across today’s financial world as women and people of color pursue entrepreneurship and hold leadership positions in banks, brokerages, insurance companies and other institutions. And Walker’s distinctive philosophy for success resonates with today’s economy: “When it comes to success the choice is simple. You can either stand up and be counted or lie down and be counted out.”
Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service.
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