On the topic of firsts, and in regards to African-American women, there are the usual people that we normally hear about: Phillis Wheatley, who published a book of poems during a time when tens of thousands of others of her race were being held in bondage throughout the country, and punished with even death for the mere attempt of learning to read or write; Madam CJ Walker (Sarah Breedlove) who became the first self-made female millionaire of any race, by way of her line of hair and skin care products specialized for black women; Hattie McDaniel who won an Oscar for her supporting role in the classic film Gone with the Wind; and Oprah Winfrey, who had a nationally syndicated talk show on television for more than two decades- and is now reportedly the first billionaire of her ilk. With all of these great women being mentioned whenever the conversation presents itself, somehow Margaret Walker’s name rarely, if ever, is included. Why is this so? How has her profound story gotten lost in the throes of history? I would venture to say that most Americans and feminists, too, have never heard of her. Even as someone who has studied African American history intently for decades, I had not caught wind of her until a few years ago. So who is she and why should her journey be unearthed?
Margaret Lena Draper was born at the tail end of the Civil War in 1864- one year before thousands of enslaved were emancipated from southern slave holding states. Her mother was a formerly enslaved African-American and her father an Irish-American (possibly a Confederate soldier though at least one account has him as a journalist) (Encyclopedia Virginia). Like so many others, Maggie’s family was extremely poor. To make ends meet, she and her mother washed and folded clothes for well-to-do white clients for a living (Carry On 2:30). Even though they did not have much, Maggie was fortunate to be of the first generation of black children allowed to attend school. There she and her classmates were taught the importance of education, community building through team work and social services, economic responsibility, and racial pride (3:48). As a young teen she joined the local Richmond, Virginia chapter of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a black secret fraternity that pooled their money together to help other African-Americans. Activism started early for her when she participated in one of the earliest school segregation protests that fought for the right of her black graduating class to have their ceremony in the same space as white students (4:37).
Believing that education was the step stool for economic, gender, and racial prosperity, Maggie became a teacher after receiving her diploma. However, she was forced to quit a few years later because she married the love of her life, Armstead Walker (a practice that lasted well into the next century, 520). Unable to work, she channeled her energy toward the IOSL. Rising in leadership in the fraternity she started a children’s chapter where she stressed the importance of self pride, teamwork, and economic education (6:28). Once the chief leader stepped down she promptly took his place and turned the order towards ever greater success (6:56). Since legal institutions (such as Jim Crow laws that insured segregation of the races) and unofficial (such as the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization that terrorized black people and their white supporters) insisted on making it near impossible for AA to vote or participate in government, eke out a living, or live without fear of harm, Mrs. Walker decided the best way to counter those things was through education and economic empowerment. She started a bank, a newspaper, and a department store all under the fraternity’s umbrella. Knowing that blacks in general were severely oppressed, she believed the women were much more so, and hired only them to work in secretarial positions (8:20).
As an activist and “race person” she drove home the idea of only buying from one another since the bigger, modern white department stores did not allow AA to use the front door, eat at lunch counters, or even try on clothes before purchasing. She claimed, “Every time you step foot into a white man’s store you are making the lion of prejudice stronger and stronger, and making it all the more easy for him to devour the negro merchant who is trying to do business. The only way we can kill the lion of race prejudice is to stop feeding him.” (11:30) The St. Luke Emporium general store started by Walker further impressed the importance of blacks having their own businesses by not only hiring black clerks, but by displaying black mannequins (12:04). It was a slap in the face to Jim Crow.
In becoming editor-in-chief of the newspaper she started, the St. Luke Herald, she used the medium to fight for black suffrage and even to help incite a streetcar boycott half a century before the infamous Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Parks in 1955. In doing this, Mrs. Walker encouraged black Richmonds, “Let us walk. Our self respect demands that we walk.” (12:51) Her chartering and leading the St. Luke Penny Saving Bank is one of the most wonderful actions she took during her long span of great decisions. White banks would not accept deposits from African Americans so being able to open checking and savings accounts, buy burial insurance, and obtain home and business loans (over 600 were approved) was instrumental in the economic growth of the community (10:19).
Mrs. Margaret Lena Walker has done so much in the cause of African-American upliftment that it is a shame few people remember. Of course, she has a place on the list of firsts, but to me her accomplishments extend far beyond being the first black female bank president. From a young age she set out on a quest to pull an entire community out of the trenches of poverty toward self-sustainability while at the same time empowering black women-the lowest on the food chain. Her courage and rebelliousness made her fight against social norms in a time when Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and age-old sexism resisted her efforts. She survived poverty, the murder of her step-father, loss of career, accidental shooting death of her husband, a debilitating illness, the Great Depression, and still came out on top, bringing a multitude of others with her.
She was a self-made millionaire like her contemporaries Madam CJ Walker and Annie Malone (the true first black woman millionaire and Madam’s mentor), and the mansion, expensive cars, fancy clothes and other amenities were sure to prove it. She was a physical reminder to all that they could do it, too, but one of the things I really like about her is how she used her money and home to continue fighting for her cause throughout her life. She held meetings at her, inviting legendary activists whom she discussed strategies for a better tomorrow: WEB DuBoise, Booker T. Washington, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Mary Mc Loyd Bethune (13:36).
Unfortunately, it all came to an end in 1934 when Mrs. Walker passed away at the age of seventy due to diabetes complications (17:36). Her legacy lives on and she continues to inspire all those who know her name. Hopefully, more will learn of her soon.
Photo: National Museum of American History https://americanhistory.si.edu/explore/stories/pennies-and-nickels-add-success-maggie-lena-walker
Branch, C. M. M. (1864, July 15). Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934). Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/walker-maggie-lena-1864-1934/
Unknown, U. (2022). Maggie L. Walker (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/people/maggie-l-walker.htm