Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1864 in Richmond, Virginia. Her mother, Elizabeth Draper, worked for many years as a laundress and may have been enslaved when her daughter was born. Her father was an Irish journalist. As a young girl she lived with her mother, stepfather, and a sibling in a house on College Alley near the Medical College of Virginia. She attended the Old Lancasterian School, and later the Navy Hill School, and became a member of First African Baptist Church in 1878.
When Walker graduated in 1883, she was among ten students in her class who gained national fame in their unsuccessful protest demanding use of Richmond's public facilities for their graduation ceremonies. After graduation, Walker taught school for a time and continued her own education by taking classes in accounting. In 1886 she married Armstead Walker Jr., a successful bricklayer and contractor. They had three sons, one of whom died in infancy. They also adopted a niece.
While she was still a young teenager, Walker joined the Good Idea Council # 16 of the Independent Order of the Sons and Daughters of St. Luke, a fraternal organization. She worked her way up in the organization to Right Worthy Grand Outside Sentinel, Inside Sentinel, Grand Messenger, Vice Chief, and by 1890, Chief. In 1899 Walker was elected as Right Worthy Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke.
When Walker took the helm, the organization had about $32 in assets and $400 in debt. Using her business acumen, Walker launched a number of ventures that bolstered the organization's coffers and membership rolls. Under Walker's leadership, the group began printing a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, in 1902. In 1903 they opened a three-story brick building that housed the St. Luke's headquarters, a print shop, and a lecture hall and meeting space that could be used by the public. Most notable, under Walker's leadership, the organization founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank on November 2, 1903, and she became the first African American female bank president in the nation. In the spring of 1905, she opened the St. Luke Emporium, a department store, which moved in November to 112 Broad Street.
During Walker's thirty-five-year tenure, the Independent Order of St. Luke's membership grew to more than 100,000, including more than 20,000 children, in twenty-three states, with a strong presence in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Walker's leadership and success catapulted her to national fame. By 1912, she had become a member of the National Association of Colored Women and she founded the state federation called the Council of Colored Women. She helped the group to purchase a headquarters at 00 Clay Street. She was also involved in the Negro Organization Society, the Community House for Colored People, the Urban League, and the Virginia Interracial Commission.
Unfortunately, with the economic downturn that marked the Great Depression, Walker and the leaders of the bank were forced to merge with two other banks to become Consolidated Bank and Trust. Towards the end of her life, Walker was slowed by health issues. By late in the 1920s, she was confined to a wheelchair, which required that an elevator be installed in her house, and that the items necessary for her daily use, like her car and desk, be specially fitted to accommodate her. Ultimately, Walker succumbed to diabetic gangrene on December 15, 1934. Walker's former home at 110 ½ East Leigh Street was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and is maintained by the National Park Service.
Marlowe, Gertrude W. “Walker, Maggie Lena.” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine et al., vol. 2. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
———. A Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2003.
Hester, Wesley P. “New Birth Year Uncovered for Maggie L. Walker” July 5, 2009. Richmond Times-Dispatch.