In the first installment of the Cloud of Witnesses series, I wanted to, in many instances, introduce some of us to Black women that may have been cast aside on the historical trail. If they garner any mention, it’s not sufficient as most of these women accomplished feats in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They deserve a better space to occupy during this new century and with the advent of the World Wide Web and blogging, in particular, I can formally bring you the wondrous achievements of Mrs. Maggie Lena Walker.
Born as the daughter of a washerwoman in 1867, Walker grew up in Richmond, Virginia and graduated from the Colored Normal School in 1883. As a teacher in the city’s public schools, Walker also took courses in accounting and sales which would later prove to be vital assets in her historical contributions. She married Armstead Walker and was required to stop teaching but used her skills in the many organizations that catered to the needs of women.
One of Walker’s most instrumental roles was as the Grand Worthy Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, founded by former slave woman, Mary Prout. The organization was founded as a women’s sickness and death mutual benefit association; meaning it provided insurance benefits mainly for former slave women. In this role, Walker instituted and worked diligently on the order’s ventures: a juvenile department, an educational fund, a department store, and a weekly newspaper. Initially in decline prior to Walker, the order grew to 100,000 members in 2,010 councils and circles in twenty eight states.
The order was involved in every capacity necessary to ensure equality for Black Americans, and in particular, Black women. The order’s endeavors ranged from social, economic, and political levels; complete with a women’s suffrage movement that led to an unprecedented achievement, even today. During the 1920 elections in Richmond, black women accounted for 80% of eligible black voters. In turn, blacks organized an independent political party called the Virginia Lily-Black Republican Party; and Walker ran for state superintendent of public instruction under the ticket in 1921.
Maggie Lena Walker is most known for being the first woman bank president. She founded the Penny Savings Bank in 1903 which was dedicated to ensuring that the ’small depositor’ was able to save money. Many of the bank’s customers were washerwomen, like her mother, and other domestics and laborers–both male and female. Before her death in 1934, Walker helped with the reorganization of the bank as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company; and it is the oldest, existing Black owned and operated financial institution in the country.
Walker’s philosophy rested squarely on the need to provide black women with the same opportunities to excel economically as white women, and even men. Of course, her active public life drew criticism from those within the black community as well as among whites. However, Walker stood firm on her ideals of enabling Black women to be self-sufficient, whether married or single. Black women were suffering under conditions that rendered them helpless in caring for their children. Therefore, they deserved the ability to acquire their own means financially in an effort to better support their families as their husbands were unable, in many cases, to do so alone.
Walker believed that women should have a balance between work and family life and both were necessities in upholding a proper society. Noted scholar, Elsa Barkley Brown, wrote,
“In her efforts Walker, like the other Saint Luke women, was guided by a clearly understood and shared perspective concerning the relationship of black women to black men, to the black community, and to the larger society. This was a perspective that acknowledged individual powerlessness in the face of racism and sexism and that argued that black women, because of their condition and status, had a right–indeed, according to Walker, a special duty and incentive–to organize” (p. 620).
Indeed, Walker’s ideals were forward thinking in the nineteenth century and perhaps just as progressive in the 21st century. Are Black women making a point to organize as once before? Do we still feel as though we have a need to do so? Walker believed that black women should be able to support themselves financially without the ‘companion of a man’ and it appears that this same sentiment is revalent some 100 or so years later. How much have Black women advanced in their struggle? Does it matter that Black women continue to lag behind their white women counterparts in wage earnings as well as suffer disproportionately from poverty?
It appears that Walker’s work must be extended into the 21st century as Black women, not only in this country,but the world over are continuing to be affected severely by the complexities of race and sex. I know that when I study foremothers like Walker, I notice a sense of inadequacy as I realize that I am not doing enough. Their courageous stories charge me to be a better woman in the world—a better sister to my fellow sisters and brothers, a better lover to black men, and better nurturer to black children.
I hope I am not the only one.
Brown, Elsa Barkley (1989) Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke Signs (14) 3 pp. 610-633