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Just Imagine…The First African-American Woman Bank President

Maggie L. Walker, c. 1905, via nps.gov

Maggie (Draper) Walker grew up in post-Civil War Richmond. Her mother was a formerly enslaved woman and her biological father was a Confederate soldier. When Maggie was 14 years old, she joined the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), a Black fraternal society that encouraged self-reliance for meeting the needs of the Black community. Joining the IOSL was a transformational experience for her.

Maggie graduated from college with the intent of becoming a teacher. But when she married, she had to give up her teaching job because married women were not allowed to teach. Like many community leaders, Maggie turned this setback into an opportunity. She became very involved in IOSL and eventually became its leader.

IOSL was nearly bankrupt when Maggie assumed her leadership role. It only had 1,080 members. Under Maggie’s leadership, the membership of the IOSL would eventually grow to over 100,000 members. Maggie used the IOSL organization to form the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, a newspaper, and a department store. Maggie was the first African-American woman to charter a bank. She used all of these entrepreneurial ventures to advance African-Americans. Her work force was primarily African-Americans, and this led her to support educational opportunities where none existed before.

Maggie was a tough disciplinarian and insisted on strict attendance and work performance practices. These included dress standards and personal discipline. Her employees worked long hours. Her approach proved a success, as her bank was able to stay afloat through the Great Depression.

Maggie was a diabetic and confined to a wheelchair in her later years. She eventually died of diabetes in 1934, but remained active until her last days.

Just imagine what it takes to be such a leader for your community. Community leaders often have a vision that leads to success for others. They may also be role models in their personal lives, and their high standards influence the lives and standards of others. They can be demanding and are not afraid to expect a lot from those they work with. But they do so in order to help raise the lives of others. Just imagine what it would look like to encourage and support such community leaders across our nation.

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“Let us put our money together. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.” —Maggie  Walker  


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.