February 28, 2020

Maggie L. Walker’s Home Preserves African American Entrepreneurship

In the early 1900s, the Jackson Ward community in Richmond, Virginia, helped guide African American commerce and civic life across the nation. Today, people can gain a glimpse into this past when they walk past a stately Victorian home in the heart of the neighborhood.

Maggie Lena Walker’s home would catch any passerby’s eye, even if they were not aware of its significance to African American history. Today, the brick house features a columned facade and striped awnings. While the architecture of the home is impressive, the building and the owner who renovated it demonstrate the resilience and entrepreneurship of African Americans even in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Exterior view of the Maggie L. Walker National Historical Park.

photo by: Jimmy Emerson via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Maggie L. Walker National Historical Park in Richmond, Virginia

Maggie L. Walker had lifelong ties to Richmond. She was a businesswoman and activist dedicated to the black community and to uplifting other women. According to biographer Candice F. Ransom, “Maggie Lena Walker was born in the Van Lew mansion. Maggie’s mother, a former slave, was employed by Elizabeth Van Lew.” Maggie recounted a difficult childhood in reconstruction Virginia: “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.” Today, Walker’s home is a monument to its owner’s rags-to-riches legacy.

Walker’s life changed when she was fourteen. She joined the local Independent Order of St. Luke, a philanthropic organization that provided burial funds and other assistance to people in need. Throughout her life, she advanced to the role of Right Worthy Grand Secretary. As a national leader in the Order, Walker created a newspaper called The St. Luke Herald to advertise the group across the country. According to the National Park Service, two years later, Walker made national history as the first African American woman to charter a bank. While her mother had been a slave, now Walker had the wealth to purchase her own estate.

The house Walker chose had its own African American history. It was built by George W. Boyd, an African American contractor in Richmond. He created the Victorian Gothic two-story townhome in 1883, and two African American doctors lived in the home before Walker acquired it in 1904. The two-story home was a centerpiece in Jackson Ward, which is featured as the “Black Wall Street of America” on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. When Walker moved into the home, she helped cement the neighborhood’s role as a leading black financial hub.

Independent Order of Saint Luke employees working in supply room at St. Luke Hall.

photo by: National Park Service

Independent Order of Saint Luke employees working in supply room at St. Luke Hall.

As Walker revitalized the Order of St. Luke, she also transformed Boyd’s building into a monument of her business acumen and a home for her family. Maggie Walker’s relationship to this house is a symbol of black excellence in American history. She purchased the house and expanded it with the help of Virginia’s first licensed African American architect, Charles T. Russell. The most iconic of these changes are the upstairs sunroom and the columned porch, but Walker continued her innovation deep inside the home, too. She replaced the gas lamp fixtures and added internal heat and electricity, luxuries that her mother (and a young Maggie) may have never imagined being able to one day afford.

Walker intentionally commissioned Black architects and artists, so her home was a community affair. It grew as Jackson Ward earned its title of “Quality Row” because of the prominent community members who lived up and down the street. Her new shaded balcony offered Walker a prime spot to watch this development in real-time.

The house is a testament to Walker’s own innovative spirit, and she played just as much a role in building the house as Boyd. By the end of her lifetime, Walker had added 21 rooms and anelevator, making a sprawling mansion out of the original 9-room home.

Portrait of Maggie L. Walker

photo by: National Park Service via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Maggie L. Walker

Maggie Walker’s home is special because it serves as a time capsule into the life of one of America’s founding African American female entrepreneurs. Because the home remained in the Walker family line until 1979, when it was acquired by the National Park Service, visitors to the site can see the estate as it was in Walker’s lifetime. According to the National Park Service, “The furnishings throughout the home are original family pieces. Together the house and the furnishings help us to learn more about Maggie Walker and the world in which she lived.”

The interior of the home is just as grand as the exterior. Guests can interact with Walker’s custom wheelchair, her clothing, and her favorite art pieces. These personal and historical items remained undisturbed for decades at their original location at the Walker home. Such artifacts offer valuable insight into how Walker balanced her life as a successful Black woman and community leader while taking care of her family, fighting racism, and coping with late-stage diabetes.

Exterior of Maggie L. Walker's bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia

photo by: National Park Service

Exterior of St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia

Maggie Walker passed away in 1934, but her home and her bank lived on. As a National Park site, the Walker home honors Walker’s impact in Richmond, the state of Virginia, and beyond. Walker remains a valuable icon of Black heritage and prosperity after the Civil War.

The St. Luke Penny Saving Bank joined with two other Richmond banks to form The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. This merged bank remained the oldest African American operated bank in the U.S. until 2009. Inside her home, the Walker family records, and Maggie’s personal items educate visitors about her role as a financial maven and an advocate for African American autonomy in the reconstruction South.

Visitors can engage with the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in-person at 600 N. 2nd Street, Richmond. There, they will be greeted by the awnings and columns in which Maggie took great pride. Interested parties may also take a curated virtual tour of the Walker home to find out more about the Walker family and their time living in the building.

With the Walker home as a National Park site, people will continue to learn about and celebrate Maggie’s life for many years to come.

Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

lbrooks@savingplaces.org

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