Black History Month celebrations often focus on the achievements of African Americans in politics, culture, and sports – business achievements, in general, and achievements in financial services, in particular. particular, are rarely taken into account in this February spotlight. A prominent figure in the world of financial services who should be highlighted during Black History Month – or, for that matter, in any month – is Maggie Lena Walkerwho broke racial and gender barriers in 1903 when she became the nation’s first female bank president.
A slow rise to prestige: She was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond, Virginia in 1864, when the city was still the capital of the Confederacy. His mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave working as a cook and servant in the household of Elizabeth Van Lew, a philanthropist who worked as a Union spy during the Civil War. His father was Eccles Cuthbert, and Irish-born Confederate officer who later became a prominent journalist. The exact nature of her relationship with her father is unclear – during her lifetime she cited William Mitchella black butler whom his mother married in 1868, as a father, though she would also name one of her sons Eccles, thus suggesting a relationship existed.
Mitchell was killed in 1876 in a murder that was never solved, forcing Maggie’s mother to work as a laundress to support her family. At 14, Maggie got involved in the Independent Order of Saint Luke (IOSL), a charity dedicated to helping black people in poor physical and financial health.
Walker graduated from Richmond Color Normal School in 1883 and began working as a teacher, but after her marriage to the entrepreneur armstead walker in 1886, she was forced to give up her job because the law at the time prohibited married women from teaching. Instead, she became actively involved in the IOSL, rising through the leadership ranks until she became the organization’s national leader in 1899. Walker also took correspondence courses in commerce and in accounting to gain a better understanding of the management of an organization. his circumvention restrictions that in-person schools imposed on black people.
A very different bank: Walker focused on encouraging black people to seek economic self-sufficiency, but this was difficult at a time when many financial institutions refused to issue mortgages, sell insurance policies or take deposits. banks of black customers.
Walker saw the IOSL as a vehicle to encourage financial independence for the disenfranchised black community in Jim Crow-era Virginia, saying in a speech, “Let’s put our moneys together. Let’s use our money, spend it and reap the benefits ourselves. Let’s have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.
Walker convinced a white Richmond bank manager to show him how a bank worked. She spent several hours a week over a period of months studying all aspects of operations until she felt confident that she could train new employees on their jobs. She also sought to ensure that a large number of women were employed at her new bank, thereby providing black women with employment opportunities that transcended the professional boundaries of their time.
Saint-Luc Penny Savings Bank became a state chartered bank in July 1903, with Walker breaking the double barriers by assuming the role of bank president. She had hoped for an opening day that would attract $75,000 in deposits – she brought in more than $8,000, mostly from small sums brought in by 280 new customers. And though she was disappointed in her early days, Walker was quick to secure the bank’s success.
A force for change: Walker’s leadership role created mixed feelings in the white male world of early 20th-century Virginia. On the one hand, her leadership abilities earned her the respect of the local banking industry – she was invited to join the Virginia Bankers Associationa rare honor at the time, considering both her race and gender.
On the other hand, there were plenty in Richmond who weren’t eager to see Walker and the IOSL succeed. The organization also started a newspaper and a department store when the bank was founded, but threats and pressure from hostile white competitors eventually forced Walker to end both of his efforts.
But the bank is growing, slowly but surely. Many of his customers were low-income workers who trusted the bank for their wages—and Walker kept the bank open late into the evening to accommodate many laborers who could not miss work during the day. The bank became the source of loans for black residents of Richmond, many of whom were able to become homeowners and start businesses through Walker’s institution.
By the mid-1920s, the bank had approximately $500,000 in deposits, or nearly $8 million in today’s money, and a considerable achievement considering the relatively meager sums acquired from its low-income depositors.
A lasting legacy: Walker recognized that the boom period of the 1920s was running out of steam, and in 1929 she began coordinating a merger between the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and two other black-owned banks in Richmond, Second Street Savings Bank and Commercial bank and trust. The three banks came together in 1931 as Consolidated bank and trustwith Walker as chairwoman of the board until her death in 1934.
Consolidated Bank and Trust continued to operate as a black-owned bank until 2005 when it was acquired by Abigail AdamsNational Bancorp, a white-owned business. In 2009, Adams was acquired by First Financial Bancorp Inc. of Huntington, West Virginia – which, in turn, was acquired last April by Peoples Bancorp Inc. (NASDAQ: PEBO) of Marietta, Ohio.
Walker’s legacy is evident in today’s financial world as women and people of color pursue entrepreneurship and hold leadership positions in banks, brokerages, insurance companies and other institutions. And Walker’s distinctive philosophy for success resonates with today’s economy: “When it comes to success, the choice is simple. You can either stand up and be counted, or lie down and be counted.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service.
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