Maggie Mitchell Walker (1867-1934)
Maggie Mitchell Walker was a leading businesswoman at the turn of the twentieth century and is often credited as being the first female president of a bank in the United States.
Mitchell was born in Richmond, Virginia, two years after the Civil War ended. Her parents were employed as cook and butler for Elizabeth Van Lew, who was the postmaster of Richmond. Van Lew provided a highly positive role model for young Maggie.
At age 17, Mitchell was elected as an officer in the Women’s Union, a local group of black women who provided insurance for themselves. In the societies, which were local and nonprofit, poor people paid a few cents weekly into a mutual insurance program that then assisted them in time of need. Many provided access to a doctor; most offered burial insurance and sometimes disability coverage.
A Baltimore woman, Mary Prout, founded the insurance plan called Saint Luke that Maggie Mitchell joined in the early 1880s. Mitchell developed highly astute business methods, especially the introduction of a weekly newsletter that educated African-Americans on the importance of savings. An 1886 marriage changed her name to Walker, but she continued with her career while bearing three sons.
Her aptitude for business was clearly demonstrated after she became Saint Luke’s executive secretary in 1899. The company was $400 in debt and down to two employees, but by her death 35 years later, it had paid out $3 million in benefits and its staff of 50 supervised solid assets. She expanded from insurance into banking in 1903: with assets of $8000, she began Saint Luke’s Penny Savings Bank, and by 1920, could cite 645 homes “entirely paid for through our bank’s help.”
When Wall Street fell in 1929, her bank was solid and absorbed most of the other area banks that served blacks. With its name changed to Richmond Consolidated Bank and Trust, she paid dividends to stockholders during the Great Depression, when many other banks closed their doors.
Maggie Walker suffered from diabetes, which caused her death at 68. She left her estate to her widowed daughter-in-law. Her Richmond residence, just off of I-95, at 600 North 2nd Street, is a historic site operated by the National Park Service and is open to visitors.
This article is reprinted from the Winter 2006 NWHM Newsletter