Born toward the end of the Civil War, Maggie Walker had a unique pedigree.
“Her mother lived in the house of Elizabeth Van Lew, one of the most noted Union spies during the war,” says historian Elvatrice Belsches. “Her father was said to be a white journalist by the name of Eckels Cuthbert. He also served as a Civil War soldier.” That is, a Confederate soldier.
In the 1880s, Walker graduated from Richmond Colored Normal — one of the first post-war black high schools in Richmond — and began a career as a teacher.
“Now, she would later marry,” Belches says. “Back in those days, for the most part if you got married you had to relinquish your teaching position. So that was the impetus for her moving into something else.”
That something else was money management.
Walker took over a failing fraternal organization that provided burial services for former slaves and free blacks, sort of an earlier version of life insurance. Her title? The Right Worthy Grand Council Secretary Treasurer of the Independent Order of the Sons and Daughters of St. Luke.
By the end of the century, Walker had turned things around, and the company she headed was meeting the bottom line. On a roll, she opened a newspaper, led a boycott protesting segregation of Richmond streetcars, and then she moved her attention to banking.
“White banks might in some cases not welcome black patrons at all, they might accept deposits but not give out loans,” says Ethan Bullard of the Maggie Walker Historic Site in Richmond. “But Maggie Walker said, ‘Hey, let’s put our money to good use.'”
Using seed money from her fraternal organization, she went about setting up a bank. And according to Bullard, she actually shadowed a white banker to learn some of ins and outs of the trade machinations of banking.
Just to reiterate: This was the South in the beginning of the 1900s. Jim Crow was in full effect. But as crazy as it sounds, there doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence that she ran into opposition from white bankers.
“Whites really generally didn’t see the black banks as competition because their clientele was different,” says Belsches. “I think also for Mrs. Walker, people were less intimidated because she was a lady.”
Later though, once her bank was established, Walker turned her attention to building a general store in the commercial center of white Richmond.
And that got a very different reaction.
“She was given an offer of $10,000 to not open her business,” says Bullard. “There was a group of Richmond retailers that threatened to boycott the wholesalers who were providing the merchandise for Maggie Walker’s emporium. It was a direct threat to some of these segregation policies.”
Belsches is more generous to the white retailers from that time.
“There was a lot of interracial cooperation behind the scenes,” she says. “People can be territorial regardless of race. If you move in a new dry goods store and you’ve got people in close proximity, they’re going to have a problem with it regardless.”
That said, in many speeches throughout her life, Maggie Walker stressed the importance of blacks patronizing black businesses.
She called the prejudice of white businesses a “lion.” And the best way to kill that lion? Stop feeding it.
Walker died in 1934. Her bank went on to become the oldest continually operated by African-Americans until it was bought out by a South Dakota bank, just three years ago.
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