Location: Richmond, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Born soon after the Civil War in 1864 (or 1865) to William and Elizabeth Mitchell in Richmond, Virginia, the childhood of Maggie L Walker was normal for African-American children at the time in the South during the Reconstruction Years. Her mother was a former slave and worked as a laundress. Maggie attended the newly formed Richmond Public Schools and delivered clothes for her mother. At an early age she became involved with the Independent Order of St. Luke, a benevolent society dedicated to assisting African-American families. An example was the establishment of a life insurance fund that would pay for burial services. A firm believer of the importance of an education for African-American children, she was a school teacher for three years until she married Amistead Walker Jr in 1886, who was a brick contractor. In 1899 she became the Right Worthy Grand Secretary, a top leadership position in the Order, a post she held until her death. They also had two sons, Russel and Melvin. As part of her work with the order, she was the founder of The St. Luke Herald in 1902, a local newspaper supporting the activities of the Order. Shortly thereafter, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank becoming the first black woman to charter a bank. She continued to serve as Chairman of the Board for the bank, even after it merged with The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Along with an Emporium in Jackson Ward, Maggie L Walker became one of the wealthiest African-American women in the nation. She purchased a house on Leigh Street in Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond’s African-American business and social life in the early 20th century and filled it with expensive furniture, china, figurines, and books. She was very proud of her house and used it to serve as an example of what could be accomplished by hard working and educated African-Americans. Throughout her life she championed education, social justice, and the right to vote, even sharing the Governor’s ticket the first time she was able to vote in 1920. She was a social activist working with other African-American leaders of the time: W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and served on the Board of Trustees for several women’s groups including the National Association of Colored Women and the local NAACP. Her home in Richmond became a National Historic Site in 1978 with nearly all of her furnishings intact.
1) This area of Jackson Ward in downtown Richmond remains a show place for the African-American community. The blocks immediately surrounding her home on Leigh Street are still in very good condition and obviously cared for by the families currently living there.
2) The Visitor Center is actually located in and behind the home next door to the Walker’s house. It includes a very small museum and gift shop and an excellent movie about her life that is actually narrated by Maggie L. Walker herself from a speech she made near the end of her life.
3) The only way to see the home is by a scheduled tour with a park ranger. The tour takes about an hour and we were fortunate to be the only ones on our tour at 10 on a cold and dreary Thursday in April. We very much enjoyed our time with the guide and learned a lot about her life and accomplishments.
4) The house has to be seen to be believed. First, you are impressed with the opulence she was able to pack into the relatively small formal living room and library. The rest of the house is devoted to her family that included her husband and two sons along with their families. The additions over the years for the increasing size of the family made for some very interesting structural features. First, there are two staircases, one in the front of the house and another just behind it in the back of the house. There are windows in the wall of some of the rooms that look either into another room or are plastered over in the other room. There is even a small balcony that it accessible from three bedrooms and the balcony would be crowded with more than two people on it. Maggie’s bedroom is also interesting since her bed extends into another room with a door that cannot be opened with the bed in the way. The only access to the porch on the front of the house would have been by climbing over her bed. Finally, Maggie was confined to a wheelchair for much of her later years and had installed an elevator to access her bedroom. The elevator was in the back of the house and downstairs opened up into a bedroom that by that time was used as a play room for the children. Upstairs, she would have had to go through one of the bathrooms to access her bedroom as the hallway had two stairs leading down and then back up where the extension in the back joined the front of the house. Why they had to put these stairs down and immediately back up in the hallway, I don’t understand. It was definitely a strange house, which added to its charm.