Did you know the World’s Largest Slinky used to be displayed in Richmond, Virginia? Alas, it has moved to Pennsylvania. While I was initially quite disappointed to be missing the giant slinky, I ended up discovering something even more amazing on my afternoon tour of Richmond.
There are a plethora of interesting outdoor activities and sites in the Richmond area but the current late-winter weather – cool, cloudy, and muddy – sent me searching for an indoor activity instead. The Chimborazo Medical Museum caught my eye first which I discovered is part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. But as I mentioned, the weather isn’t great for visiting battlefields so my search continues. While I was on the National Park Service website, I discovered another NPS property in Richmond. One that I had never heard of before- Maggie L Walker National Historic Site.
Who is Maggie L. Walker?
Maggie Lena Walker was born July 15, 1864, in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother, a former slave, worked as a cook for Elizabeth Van New (a former Confederate spy for the Union and postmistress for Richmond). When her father died, her mother was forced to take in laundry to make money. Maggie and her brother helped deliver clean clothes to the customers when not in school.
“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but instead with a clothes basket almost upon my head. I have come up on the rough side of the mountain.”
At age 14, Maggie joined the local council of the Independent Order of St Lukes. The society promotes humanitarian causes and takes care of the sick and elderly.
After high school graduation, Maggie taught school for three years before getting married. At that time, it was socially unacceptable for women to work once married so she left the school. She was able to continue her charity work as a member of the Independent Order of St Luke. She rose through the ranks of the order, eventually filling the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, a position she remained in until her death.
In 1902 Maggie Walker published the first issue of the St Luke Herald newspaper. The newspaper was begun as a way to communicate with the members of the society. At that time, the written word was the best way of mass communication. Maggie used the St Luke Herald to spread the message of economic empowerment, self-help, and racial uplift to African Americans across the nation.
In 1903 Maggie Walker founded the St Luke Penny Savings Bank. She served as President of the bank and became the first African-American woman to charter a bank in the United States.
After a lifetime of community service and leadership, Maggie Walker passed away on December 15, 1934.
As impressive as the facts of her accomplishments are, it is the essence of Maggie Walker and who she was and how she lived her daily life that resonated with me the most. The tour of Maggie Walker National Historic Site starts with a 20-minute video introducing us to Maggie Walker. Several of her beliefs and views really struck a chord with me. As a woman, a mother, a teacher, and a member of a community, I can relate to Maggie in many ways and I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the video.
Podcast Alert – Listen to Maggie’s Story
This podcast episode from Encyclopedia Womanica gives an excellent quick biography of Maggie Lena Walker’s life.
This longer podcast episode from Stuff You Missed in History Class gives more detail about Maggie Lena Walker.
Almost everything Maggie Walker stood for is rooted in strong community involvement. At various points in her life she was a teacher, a business owner, a service organization leader, and even ran for public office.
Vote with your dollar
In my life, I have encountered the term “vote with your dollar” in reference to supporting local businesses. For example, when shopping at the supermarket – if you want higher quality food to be sold at the store, then vote with your dollar and buy the higher quality food rather than the cheap stuff. If you want a local business to stay open, then support it by shopping there. Or in other words, put your money where your mouth is.
Maggie was born in 1864, at the end of the Civil War. She grew up during Reconstruction and lived in Richmond, Virginia, in the Jim Crow south. (The term “Jim Crow” typically refers to repressive laws and customs once used to restrict black rights.) While slavery had officially ended, the black community still faced extreme prejudice and racism. Instead of slavery, legislated segregation became the norm. Blacks were allowed to shop at various businesses but had to use separate entrances and generally received poor service.
Maggie Walker encouraged her fellow blacks to do business with other black-owned businesses. She opened a general store called St Luke Emporium on Broad Street that was staffed by blacks and served blacks. This store wasn’t just a black-owned business. It was a black-owned business placed right smack dab in the middle of Richmond’s central business district, surrounded by white-owned businesses.
“Every time you set foot in 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 to kill the lion of prejudice is to stop feeding him.”
Supporting fellow women
“Whatever I have done in this life has been because I love women. Love to be surrounded by them. Love to hear them all talk at once. Love to listen to their trials and troubles. Love to help them.”
-Maggie L. Walker, 1909
Maggie Walker built the St Luke headquarters building in Jackson Ward, Richmond’s largest colored neighborhood, which held her office, the newspaper presses, and the bank vault. She hired primarily African-American women as staff because she felt they were doubly oppressed – as women and as black.
“Who is so oppressed as the Negro woman? Who is so circumscribed and hemmed in in the race of life, in the struggle for bread, meat and clothing as the Negro woman?”
“If you can, individually, feed and clothe and help yourself, you can, combinedly, clothe and help others. … We can do anything just as soon as we learn the lesson of unity.”
Post Civil War, the transition from slavery to citizenship began. For many African-Americans, true community building was done through their own institutions – the churches, schools, and businesses. In 1901, Maggie proposed a bank, a department store and a newspaper, all under the umbrella of St Lukes. These three things would support the fight against the limitations of Jim Crow through economic empowerment and working together to support each other,
“Let us form a partnership of heads and brains and actually do something … Let us take the nickels and turn them into dollars. The pennies, dimes, and dollars of one individual may be few, indeed, but the combined dimes, and dollars of a thousand individuals turn the weak word ‘few’ into the powerful word ‘many.'”
Maggie Walker sponsored charity and education opportunities and even helped to start one of the South’s first black Girl Scout troops, of which her granddaughter was a member.
Maggie’s Final Words
Maggie Walker’s final words before she died are said to have been-
“Have faith, have hope, have courage, and carry on.”
Following Maggie Walker’s example, with education, cooperation, and determination we can carry on.
A tour of the house
After the video about Maggie, it’s time to tour her house. I enjoyed a great tour by Ranger Yusuf Abubakar, full of even more information and stories about Mrs. Walker and her family. Here are my pictures from the tour.
Maggie Walker was a remarkable woman whose example is worth following. The words from the National Park Service page for the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site really capture the message so perfectly…
“Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination.”
If you ever happen to be in the Richmond, Virginia area, I recommend a visit to Maggie’s house. The tour takes only an hour but to hear the stories in person and to find your own personal connection with Maggie are well worth your time. Let her be an inspiration to all of us to…
“Have faith, have hope, have courage, and carry on.”
Sharing is Caring
Pin this post to spread the word about Maggie Walker.
Maggie Walker was a great inspiration to all of us to find ways to make our world a little better. Let’s join together in a 3-day kindness journey. Click the photo below to sign up for the challenge and I’ll meet you there!