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Maggie Lena Walker: Civil Rights Activist and Entrepreneur

Premiere: 3/18/2020 | 00:09:40 |

A full 50 years before the Montgomery bus boycott, civil rights activist and entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker led a city-wide boycott against segregated streetcars in Richmond, VA, and founded a newspaper, department store, and the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, making her the first African American female bank president in the United States.

About the Episode

Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934), born in Richmond, VA in the final years of the Civil War, became the first African American female bank president in the United States when she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. At a time when white-owned banks did not accept deposits from black customers, Walker not only grew her bank, but expanded the economic base of the black community in Richmond by hiring and training black women workers, and financing over 600 home and business loans for black families by 1920. Walker also founded a newspaper where she served as its managing editor and opened a department store tailored for African Americans. A civil rights activist, she organized the first Richmond branch of the NAACP, led a city-wide boycott against segregated streetcars, and promoted women’s suffrage and voter registration drives.

Interviewees: biographer Muriel Miller Branch, co-author of Pennies to Dollars: The Story of Maggie Lena Walker and founder of the Maggie L. Walker Historical Foundation; Walker’s great-great- granddaughter Eliza Walker Mickens; wealth justice activist Chloe McKenzie, CEO of BlackFem and On a Wealth Kick.

Visit PBSLearningMedia to learn more about how Maggie Lena Walker improved the lives of African Americans and women at the turn of the 20th century by providing financial empowerment, social services, and civil rights leadership.


For her to know that banking could revitalize her community was brilliance at work.

1904, Richmond, Virginia.

40 year old Maggie Lena Walker led the African American community in a city-wide boycott against segregated streetcars.

Most people believe that the Civil Rights movement began with Rosa parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.

That is really far from the truth.

The Civil Rights Movement began as soon as white America started enacting the Jim Crow laws.

I cry aloud in thunder tones against Jim Crow cars.. Let us walk. Our self-respect demands that we walk.

Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond in 1864.

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

So she grew up in a society that believed that she was a second class citizen.

African-Americans were just getting freed from slavery.

So she saw a lot of struggle within her community and I think that that is what really motivated her to work so hard.

The song which...white men are singing, is the song of segregation.

Separate is the cry daily.

The banking industry back then did not let in any person of color, let alone women.

You have to have some level of crazy to take on systems like that.

My name is Chloe McKenzie and I fight for wealth justice for a living.

I try to help the most disadvantaged groups recognize ways to build wealth.

I became a mortgage trader right after the 2008 financial crisis.

I thought it was incredibly troubling that somebody could take your debt, make a lot of money off of it while you were suffering financially.

At the turn of the twentieth century a lot of African American women were still in roles of servitude, as cooks and maids and laundresses rather than being in true positions of power.

As a young girl, Maggie Lena Walker and her mom took in laundry for the wealthy white people.

I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.

In 1883 Walker graduated from a black teacher training school.

She taught for three years, but then she got married.

And women could not teach if they were married.

Because it was unladylike.

They were supposed to be home with their children and taking care of their husband's needs.

Walker split her time between her family and work for the independent order of St. Luke, a membership organization dedicated to the social and financial empowerment of African Americans. In 1899, St.Luke was on the verge of bankruptcy, when Walker was elected Grand Secretary. Her vision to save the organization was to create businesses that hired and served the black community.

She believed that you should support black businesses. Instead of putting your money where people didn't value you, why not put your money with people who shared your struggle?

In 1903 Walker founded the St.

Luke Penny Savings Bank and became the country's first African American female bank president.

Let us put our monies together...and have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.

She grew that organization from nothing to over a million dollars.

The fact that Maggie started a bank in the early 20th century is quite mind blowing because married women couldn't even own their own bank accounts until the 70s. For a woman of color today, the median net worth, how much wealth she has, is $200.

The median net worth of a white man is upwards of $20,000.

So I founded BlackFem five years ago so that girls of color and underserved communities had the skills, habits, and resources to build and sustain wealth.

BlackFem empowers schools, to be the mechanism through which we close the wealth gap.

Walker also founded a newspaper and served as its managing editor.

The St.

Luke Herald sounded the alarm for injustices.

The did piece after piece after piece on the lynchings that were at their apex during that time.

The persecutions of our people must be told.

Somebody must speak. Somebody must cry aloud.

In 1905, Walker opened a department store on the main shopping street of Richmond.

The St.

Luke Emporium featured only African American mannequins and it really was an experience for people to go out and buy their Sunday best.

It was important to Maggie Walker to hire black women.

She felt that of all people, they had gotten the short end of the stick.

And it was her life's work to uplift women in any way she could.

To avoid the traps and snares of life, women must band themselves together, organize, and make work and business for themselves.

Walker put that ideal into practice and in 1904 bought her family a two story house. It was in this home, in 1915, that the biggest tragedy of Walker's life occurred.

They had some break-ins at the home, so they had armed themselves and unfortunately the son mistook his father for an intruder and accidentally shot and killed him.

I passed through the most trying ordeal of my life which robbed me of all energy. And so I have leaned heavily on God's everlasting arm.

Walker's faith pulled her through. Re-energized, she worked for the NAACP and The National Association of Colored Women, and also spearheaded the local struggle for women's suffrage.

The elevation of woman to her proper and rightful place has been the slowest work of the centuries. Let woman become independent.

A lot of white women at the time believed that it would hold back their own progress to reach out a hand and include African American women.

So it was really instrumental that Maggie Walker used her platform to encourage African American women to get out and vote.

Around this time, Walker developed diabetes, which confined her to a wheelchair in the last years of her life.

She put wheels on her desk chair, she installed an elevator in her home, so she really wasn't letting anything slow down the work that she was doing.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Walker kept her bank alive by merging with another black-owned bank.

The merger resulted in the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which survived until 2005.

And it was considered the longest operating black bank in America.

Walker died in 1934.

Her home is now a national historic site.

Her work and mission are rooted in this activism that changed her community.

It changed the way we think about banking.

If Maggie could do it at that time, there are really no excuses for us.

Let us awake, let us arise. We can do anything, as soon as we learn the lesson of unity.


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