By Evan SparksFor most of American history, banking was the province of white men. Even banks chartered to serve African Americans—such as the Freedman’s Savings Bank after the Civil War—were run by whites. (White leaders like Henry Cooke served the Freedman’s Bank poorly, driving it into insolvency and taking with it nearly $3 million from 70,000 depositors.) African-American mistrust of banks was endemic, but that began to change with Maggie Lena Walker.
Born in Richmond, Va., to a former slave in 1864, Walker became a teacher and worked closely with the Independent Order of St. Luke starting at age 14. Founded as a mutual society to share burial expenses, the order was one of the many fraternal organizations in the 19th century that were especially important to black life in growing cities. (Another, the True Reformers, were the first African Americans to charter a bank in 1888.)
Walker, who became the leader of the order in 1899, became convinced that black communities in the Jim Crow era had to take charge of their own finances. “First we need a savings bank,” she told the St. Luke convention in 1901. “Let us put our monies together; let us use our monies; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank opened its doors in November 1903; Walker was 39 years old, the first woman to open a U.S. bank. Before the bank opened, she spent two hours per day at a white-owned bank in Richmond learning the trade. The St. Luke bank became the financial heart of Richmond’s black community. Walker led the bank until her death in 1934; through a series of mergers, the bank remained black-owned until 2005. Through it all, Maggie Walker’s bank remained a beacon of economic empowerment and trust for a community that had been betrayed all too often before.