Maggie Lena Mitchell was born on July 15, 1864, on the Van Lew Estate in Richmond, Virginia, just before the end of the Civil War. Scholars believed that her birth year was 1867, until in 2009 documentation was found to the contrary, Census information, as well as a diary passage identified her year of birth as 1864. Her mother was Elizabeth Draper, a former slave who worked as an assistant cook for Mrs. Elizabeth Van Lew, who was an abolitionist, Unionist and spy for the Union during the Civil War. It was during this time that Elizabeth met Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish American, who was a reporter for the New York Herald. While there is documentation that Cuthbert was Maggie’s biological father, no record has been found to suggest a marriage between Cuthbert and Draper. What has been documented is that when Maggie was four her mother married William Mitchel, who worked as the Van Lew’s butler and was also a writer. They had a child, Maggies half brother, Johnnie Mitchel. After leaving Van Lew's employElizabeth became the Postmistress in Richmond.
William Mitchell left the Van Lew household and became the headwaiter at the prestigious Saint Charles Hotel enabling the little family to rent their own little home on College Alley just off Broad Street, around the corner from the Van Lew’s home where Maggie and Johnnie had grown up.were raised. They lived near the First African Baptist Church which was the social, economic, and political center of the Black community. William Mitchell met an untimely death. His body was found drowned in the James River. Authorities called the death a suicide, but Walker’s mother insisted that he had been murdered. Whatever the truth, his death plunged his widow and her two children into poverty. Maggie’s mother supported the family by working as a laundress. Although quite young, helped her mother by delivering clean laundry. This was an opportunity that allowed her to observe the economic and social disparity between the races. This part of her childhood left such an impression on Walker that years later, in 1904, she recalled, "I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.”
At the age of fourteen Maggie joint the Council of the Independent Order of St. Luke. This society was established in 1867 in Baltimore, Maryland. as a fraternal burial society but they also administered to the sick, elderly, promoted humanitarian causes and encouraged individuals to be independent and have integrity. She held many positions over the years for this organization including Grand Secretary, a position she held all of her life.
Walker graduated from the Armstrong Normal School in Richmond then she taught grade school for three years until 1886, when she met, fell in love with and married Armstead Walker Jr., a brick contractor. Her husband earned a good living, they owned their own home, and she was able to leave teaching to take care of her family and her work with the Independent Order of St. Luke within the community. Maggie and Armstead Walker Jr. had two sons, Russell and Melvin.
Walker found that white-owned banks did not want to take deposits from a black organization; thus, she saw a need to establish a bank by and for blacks. In a speech in 1901, she stated: "Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
Maggie became the first woman in the United States, Black or white, to charter a bank when she opened St. Luke Penny Saving Bank in her hometown in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t long before her bank merged with two other all African American banks to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, with Walker at the helm. In 1908, the Washington Post recognized her accomplishments in an article entitled “She is a bank president.” Of course this was an unlikely story because when Walker was born the plausibility of a woman, let alone a Black woman, opening a bank was improbably to say the least. From her roots in poverty, she went on to become one of the most influential Black females of the time. While a woman of great business acumen, Maggie was also extremely committed to philanthropy, particularly in her local community. Tragedy struck in 1915 when her husband was accidentally killed, leaving Mrs. Walker to manage the household. Her work and investments kept the family comfortably situated.
Walker received an honorary master's degree from Virginia Union University in 1925, and was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2001. In Maggie's honor Richmond Public Schools built a large brick high school adjacent to Virginia Union University. Maggie L. Walker High School was one of two schools in the area for black students, during the period of racial segregation in schools; the other was Armstrong High School. After generations of students spent their high-school years there, it was totally refurbished to reopen in 2001 as the regional Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies.
The National Park Service operates the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site at her former Jackson Ward home. In 1978 the house was designated a National Historic Site and was opened as a museum in 1985. The site states that it "commemorates the life of a progressive and talented African-American woman. She achieved success in the world of business and finance as the first woman in the United States to charter and serve as president of a bank, despite the many adversities. The site includes a visitor center detailing her life and the Jackson Ward community in which she lived and worked and her residence of thirty years.The house is restored to its 1930's appearance with original Walker family pieces.”
Walker was honored as one of the first group of Virginia Women in History in 2000.
On July 15, 2017, a statue of Walker, designed by Antonio "Toby" Mendez was unveiled on Broad Street in Richmond. The bronze, 10-foot statue shows a depiction of how she lived, with her glasses pinned to her lapel and a checkbook in hand.
Richmond. The bronze, 10-foot seshowsafootstatue shows a depiction of how she lived, with her glasses pinned to her lapel and a checkbook in hand.