Art Conveying the Spirit of Maggie Walker
All Images In This Article: Courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Maggie Walker Commemorative Art Update:
Over 90 artist entries for the City of Richmond's Maggie Walker public art commission were reviewed by the site selection team. The finalists came to Richmond present their public art proposals and a final selection will be made in early 2015. The estimated commission budget is $300,000. The following article was posted when the commission was announced in 2014.
How can an artist visually convey the spirit of Maggie Walker? The question is posed because it's easy for the magnitude of her wisdom, fearlessness, charisma and humanity to elude the understanding of people living today. A truncated reduction of Walker has come down through history to us: the image of a matronly-looking woman who founded a bank.
Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934) is known as the first American woman bank president but her historical significance is even much more prodigious. She was like a fair-skinned African queen mother in America during the country’s transition into a modern nation. Traditional African queen mothers held extraordinary power — some even had veto power over the king — and were regarded as integral to the protection and well being of the community.
In protecting and advancing the wellbeing of the national African American community from a complex of ventures, called the Independent Order of St. Luke, in Richmond, Maggie Walker ran a weekly newspaper, a department store, insurance company and a youth-training program as well as a bank — all of this, in addition to administering the benevolent services of caring for the poor, sick and aged. In so doing, she propelled a small, dying mutual aid society into a multifaceted, multi-state organization.
Maggie Walker also is the symbolic embodiment of a "can do" place where African Americans had been designing and building large, public buildings as early as 1858 and which, by the early 20th century, had evolved into a bustling business and professional sector known as "black Wall Street" and, a little later, as "the Harlem of the South." That place is Richmond's historic Jackson Ward community and Maggie Walker represents its heart and soul.
Maggie Walker also is important because of how she leaped from the gender oppression of having to quit her teaching job when she married (because married women were not allowed to teach) to confidently assuming traditional male roles while, in a nimble balancing act, also functioning in characteristic women's roles. In the 1900s, when she was starting and directing I.O. St. Luke business enterprises, she was way ahead of the trend of liberated womanhood that developed over several decades in the 20th century. The "queen mother" analogy fits because, while she was wielding immense power and accumulating wealth as a business leader, she was also founding and presiding over St. Luke's juvenile department and nurturing the children.
Walker, moreover, is an inspiration because of how she pushed through the profound tragedies of her life.
As Richmond integrated in the 1960s, the Jackson Ward neighborhood declined. Today business, city, church and other organization officials and private citizens are co-operating in the revitalization of Jackson Ward and the preservation of its history. The Maggie Walker public art commission will be a striking, lasting, physical and symbolic centerpiece of those efforts as well as her own achievement.
Maggie's Early Life
Maggie Walker’s mother, Elizabeth Draper, worked for wealthy Richmond Quakers, the VanLews. Elizabeth VanLew studied at a Quaker school in Philadelphia where she adopted Abolitionist views. Returning to Richmond, Elizabeth persuaded her mother to free their enslaved workers.
Elizabeth Draper was born enslaved but as, a free person, worked as an assistant cook for the Van Lews. In 1863 Elizabeth Draper had an apparently consensual liaison with, according to family records, a 22-year old, Irish-born Eccles Cuthbert, described in varying accounts as Confederate solider from South Carolina stationed in Richmond and as a northern abolitionist who visited the Van Lews. Could he have been a Confederate soldier who became an abolitionist? Draper was a striking, proud-looking, brown-skinned woman. Cuthbert was a writer who was, or would become, a newspaper correspondent. In the “Confederate” version of the story, he was stationed at the Confederate hospital near the Van Lew estate. The hospital and estate were on a hill overlooking downtown Richmond, called Church Hill — the “church” being the one where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.
Cuthbert and Draper were living amid dramatic circumstances. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and Elizabeth Van Lew was spying for the Union Army. And if Draper and Cuthbert had anything resembling a courtship — Elizabeth's grandson's middle name was Eccles, implying that they did — that relation also was dramatic, being forbidden, at least beyond the Van Lew estate.
Maggie was born out of that union on July 15, 1864. On April 3, 1865, Richmond was captured by the Union Army. Whites wept bitter tears and blacks danced in the streets. According to the Walker family, Cuthert remained in Richmond for a number of years before relocating to Washington DC but whites and blacks could not marry.
Elizabeth Draper was still working for the Van Lews when, in 1867 or 1868, she married William Mitchell, the African American butler in the Van Lew home.
Maggie (Draper Mitchell) Walker would later fabricate her early autobiography, claiming that she was born in 1867, not 1864, and also that William Mitchell was her biological father.
One of the enigmas of Walker's life is not why she would so misrepresent herself — being born out of wedlock was a social stigma at the time, even for black people. Although born in the sexually lawless condition of slavery, urban blacks attended Baptist and Methodist affiliated churches and held Christian values. The question is how could Walker convincingly misrepresent her origins? The fairly small, 19th century Richmond African American community was cohesive, making an assumed identity for a prominent citizen harder to pull off. It surely must have been a dual identity: her true (and physically obvious) bi-racial identity known to close associates and her fabricated, public identity.
In fabricating a full, African American identity as the biological child of William Mitchell, Walker was speaking "within the veil" when she said that she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth but with a laundry basket practically on her head, indicating identification with more unmixed African women who, African style, bore large loads on their heads.
When William Mitchell became a hotel waiter, the family moved from the Van Lew estate to their own small cottage on a path near the medical college and there a son was born. One night William Mitchell did not come home. When his body was found in the James River, the coroner called it a suicide but Elizabeth maintained that he'd been murdered. Such was the unstable, frontier-like nature of post-war Richmond; anything could happen to a black man, even he if he was an upright, hard working, family man.
To support herself and her family after her husband’s death, Elizabeth toiled long hours, doing the hard, heavy work of a laundress, and Maggie, a student in the newly-formed public schools, delivered the laundered items back to customers after school.
At age 14, Maggie became a member of the United Order of St. Luke, a benevolent and mutual aid society founded in Baltimore in 1867. The St. Luke mission swiftly became Walker’s own. She’d known hard times and wanted to help others. St. Luke was a “safety net” for black people at a time when they were denied meaningful economic opportunities in the larger society and before the establishment of city social welfare services.
Into the 20th Century
By the end of the 19th century, Maggie Mitchell had married Armstead Walker, a contractor who worked in his family’s brick and construction company, had three sons (one died in infancy) and had risen to the leadership of the Independent Order of St. Luke Order, the independent, Richmond off-shoot of the Baltimore Order. Headed by William Forrester, the Richmond Order was heading towards bankruptcy when Walker took over the top position in 1899. Swiftly reversing St. Luke’s decline, she led to organization to build cash and liquid assets of $3.5 million with almost $100,000 in reserve. Through investments, she also was building her own personal wealth.
When "a woman's place (was) in the home" — particularly a married woman with children, Maggie Walker was not only not at home, she was taking charge like a gutsy man.
“Let us put our money together; let us use our money; let us put our money out as usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves,” Maggie Walker said in a 1901 speech envisioning the St. Luke Bank and related enterprises. Chartered in 1903, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was the hub of a thriving, African American-own business section in Richmond’s Jackson Ward area. It made hundreds of loans for blacks to buy homes and start businesses, and encouraged all black people whatever their means, and even children, to save money and invest.
Some of her short bios state that she was the first African American woman bank president but it’s important to emphasize she was the first American woman of any racial identity to head a bank.
A commanding, charismatic leader with 20th century business instincts, Walker devised and led campaigns that increased St. Luke's membership to 100,000 people in 24 states.
Challenging the dominance of white retailers in Richmond’s near-by downtown area, Walker also founded a department store to offer African Americans goods at better-than-downtown prices and courteous service, including, one imagines, the ability to try on clothes. It's hard to start and run one business. Walker founded and ran several!
Maggie Walker's enterprising force was met with organized resistance by white retailers in the nearby downtown area who wanted the black business for themselves. During the 1900s, the downtown Broad Street corridor was growing into a modern commercial center and by 1909, the Miller & Rhoads department store covered nearly half a city block. African Americans continued to patronize the white-owned stores along Broad Street. Going downtown to window shop and actually shop was a major outing for all people at this time — an enjoyable activity in this era before mass entertainment and one that African Americans were not inclined to confine to Walker’s emporium, even if they could try on the hats there.
The St. Luke Emporium closed after a few years of operation but, otherwise, St. Luke enterprises continued to thrive. During the 1900s, Walker had organized departments and acquired modern office machinery and printing presses to efficiently administer and support St. Luke’s services and subsidiaries. She installed a pneumatic tube in the bank, published a weekly newsletter and other print materials, and manufactured St. Luke regalia.
But for Walker, herself, life, didn’t always function like a modern, efficient, well-oiled machine. Again, tragedy struck suddenly and unexpectedly. Walker’s son, Russell, 25, shot his father, Armstead, in 1915. He said he thought his father was an intruder. An investigation was held. Russell was charged with murder, tried twice and acquitted. Maggie Walker steadfastly supported her son in his account of the shooting.
But mystery still surrounds the incident which is decribed in this report. It's not hard to understand why the detectives on the case had suspicions about the details. Russell testified that he thought Armstead was on the roof when he fired the shot. Why did he think Armstead would still be on the roof after they discovered that no one was there? If Armstead had come down the rear stair and gone out to check the second-floor back porch, why would he have closed the screen door behind him? It was obvious that the house was inhabited so why would an intruder try to enter so early in the evening? But there was no intruder on the roof so what did Russell hear? Squirrels? Was the call to the police the night before a ruse to set up the story? And so on. But, as Maggie Walker, herself knew, life can be stranger than fiction. The eerie shooting incident may well have happened according Russell's account. Maggie Walker's touching words about Russell's birth, reproduced at the end of the above-linked article, reveal a very strong and powerful woman's tenderness.
After the family ordeal, Russell sank into depression and alcoholism. Both of Walker’s sons, as adults, lived in her home and died when they were in their mid-30s.
Again Maggie Walker persevered through the latest of the profound tragedies of her life — her beloved step-father’s murder, her half-brother's death at age 21 from tuberculosis, her husband dead from her son’s bullet, Russell's travails, and the premature deaths of all three of her children. Going through the fire deepened her humility, humanity and determination to help others.
One significant aspect of Walker’s greatness was a keenly-articulated recognition of how racism and sexism intersected in the lives of black women and her profound love for these women. Despite her forceful ability to deliver results in a broad array of pursuits, Walker, herself, was a victim of gender bias. The remarkable depth of intellect and erudition this woman who only had the equivalent of a high school education is not conveyed well in her short biographies. She is recognized as a pioneering bank president but one has to dig much deeper in her history to glean that she was a brilliant, creative thinker; gifted orator and writer, and what, many years later, the writer Alice Walker would call a “womanist.”
These words are emblazoned on a long, wood-framed sign in the shop of the Maggie Walker historic house in Richmond:
…the great all absorbing interest,
the thing which has driven sleep
from my eyes
and fatigue from my body,
is the love I bear women,
our Negro women,
hemmed in, circumscribed
with every imaginable obstacle in our way,
blocked and held down by the fears and prejudices of the whites
— ridiculed and sneered at by the intelligent blacks.
Walker delivered these words in 1909 during at a literary club meeting. Her description of sexist, black-on-black condescension drove her point home.
Walker made good on her words. All of the administrative units of St. Luke's services and enterprises provided professional employment for black women, as well as men, at a time when such work was often denied to women.
In 1921, just one year after American women gained the right to vote, Maggie Walker ran for public office — superintendent of public instruction for the Richmond Public Schools. Her run for a traditionally male-held office was another projection of her fearless, visionary imagination. She did not have a college degree but knew she could do the job. Not surprisingly, she did not win office in Richmond's Jim Crow electoral system.
Possessing leadership qualities normally associated with men at that time and the nurturing, empathetic qualities normally associated with women, Maggie Walker was able to gently kick ass with class.
While Walker, herself, doggedly managed to circumscribe many of the obstacles that she alluded to in her talk, her mature image is one that makes her an easy victim of reduction in the regard of later generations.
The image of a very full-figured woman in dowager attire is Maggie Walker's capsule view in the annals of American history. This image leads us to consider one obstacle that Walker could not circumscribe.
If she had been a man, Walker’s strong drive and commanding leadership likely would have led to a physically active life of a kind that would have seemed unseemly for a woman of her times. Bound by long dresses, slips, stockings and garters, she could not have engaged in roughhouse play with her sons, dashed off to meetings, bounded up steps, played golf or tennis. And while she could not smoke as many business executives then did — a good circumscription, she could attend the endless luncheons, receptions and banquets to which a business and community leader was invited and consume the devitalized, refined foods afforded by her elevated station in life and the emergent, modern food processing industry.
Also, Maggie Walker's life was more sedentary than that of many black women because, unlike them, she did not have to do house work, food shopping or care for children and grandchildren. A live-in, distant relative of her husband managed the day to day chores of the Walker home and additional help was available for big domestic jobs. And at a time when most people walked a lot, Walker rode in style. For Christmas in 1903, the Order of St. Luke gave Maggie Walker a fancy, horse-drawn carriage, a matched pair of black horses and coachman’s livery. While she certainly deserved the rewards of hard work and successful leadership, they combined to undermine her health.
Maggie Walker occupied an unusual position between male and female roles that was both empowering and restrictive. She developed type-2 diabetes by the mid 1920s and by the late 1920s, was confided to a wheel chair.
Again, Maggie Walker rose to meet the challenges of her life. She continued to work in a custom-designed wheelchair that was fitted with a writing desk. And, unlike other prominent figures who attempted to conceal their disabilities from the public, Walker purposefully allowed the full view of herself in a wheelchair to be photographed and distributed in print media, setting an admirable example for others with disabilities.
As she pushed doggedly on through every challenge — organizing the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company through a merger with two other banks after the financial crash in 1929 — Walker was coping with a diabetic sore on her leg that would not heal and was becoming infected with gangrene.
The woman looking out from those final photos was knowingly facing her imminent mortality.
Nearing the end of her life, Maggie Walker looks like the embodied essence of what drove her life: courage, love and compassion.
Maggie Walker died December 15, 1934 at age 70.
— Juliette Harris
The enigmas and travails of Walker’s life are generally glossed over in the official, short biographies. They are discussed in this IRAAA+ account to bring out the full, human dimensions of Walker's story — dimensions that make her spirit more comprehensible to artists considering the Walker public art commission.
All images in this artice are from The Maggie L. Walker Family Papers collection of the National Park Service's Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site