Maggie Walker was the first woman of any race to own a bank. What makes this achievement remarkable is that she was born in 1867 to a former slave in Richmond, Va. Her mother was widowed and left destitute when her father was murdered. She and her mother survived by doing laundry for whites families in the area, an experience that shaped her understanding of wealth and race inequality. But Maggie was a brilliant student and finished high school at 16. She became a teacher, but was forced to quit when she married as it was unlawful for married women to teach.
Maggie Walker joined the Order of St. Luke's -- a black mutual help benevolent society. She turned that particular dying organization into a thriving one. Based on the needs she observed in her community, she established a newspaper, a printing press, an insurance company, and a college education fund.
In 1903, she started St. Luke Penny Savings Bank with $9,400 dollars. These funds were gathered from very small deposits as she convinced poor black wage-earners that a savings bank could take their hard-earned "nickels and turn them into dollars." She created little cardboard piggy-banks for the kids that came into her bank with their mothers and taught them how to save. She saw savings and entrepreneurship as a way to freedom. And she wanted, more than anything, to help her race achieve success. "God knows I love this race of mine, especially the women..."
Her bank thrived and grew. The bank had more than $300,000 in assets in 1913 and had helped its members buy 600 homes by 1920. This is during a time when mortgage loans were rare. The bank did not fail during the Great Depression, but was absorbed into Consolidated Bank and Trust, another black-owned bank. Maggie Walker was appointed Chairwoman of the Board of the merged bank. Maggie Walker's bank survived the Great Depression and two world wars, but would not live through the financial crisis of our century. It failed in 2009 along with many other community banks in the country for whom TARP funds were not forthcoming.
Maggie Walker's personal life was a struggle. She lost her second-born son as an infant and then her husband was accidentally shot and killed by her firstborn son who mistook him for an intruder. She developed diabetes later in life and was confined to a wheelchair. She died in 1934.
The Governor of Virginia, in a somewhat side-ways compliment, said of Maggie Walker in 1924, "If the State of Virginia had done no more, in 50 years, with the funds spent on the education of the Negroes than to educate Mrs. Walker, the State would have been amply repaid for its outlays and efforts."
In her own words, "The great all absorbing interest, the thing which has driven sleep from my eyes and fatigue from my body, is the love I bear women, our Negro women, hemmed in, circumscribed with every imaginable obstacle in our way, blocked and held down by the fears and prejudices of the whites--ridiculed and sneered at by the intelligent blacks."
Indeed, Maggie Walker had every imaginable obstacle in her way and she overcame each through tireless persistence. May she be recognized for her life dedicated to others and take her place among the heroes and leaders that have shaped this great nation.