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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 290

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This is the grave of Maggie Walker.

Born in 1864 in Richmond to a mother who was a freed slave and cook for Elizabeth Van Lew, who herself was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, after the war, Maggie and her mother moved to their own house near Van Lew, where she grew up. During Reconstruction, black communities began developing their own institutions to support them. In the cities, this was easier than in rural areas because a tiny middle class had already developed, but either way, the church became central to the black community. Walker grew up around First African Baptist Church and building black institutions became her life mission.

Walker taught school for a few years as a young woman, then married Armstead Walker, a contractor. They were squarely in the growing black middle class. Walker stopped teaching, raised her family, and dedicated herself to the community. That started with her work in the Independent Order of St. Luke, a black burial society. The core mission of late 19th century fraternal societies was often burial services, particularly in poor and immigrant communities. Walker rose within the society and took over the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899. She expanded its operations considerably, beginning a juvenile department for children’s activities, an educational loan fund, and a department store for the black community. Nationally, the Order grew to 80,000 members in over 2,000 chapters in 28 states. And while it had been traditionally male run, Walker encouraged black women to be more involved in the day-to-day activities of the Order nationwide.

As a leader of the growing black community in Richmond at a time when Jim Crow was become institutionalized, Walker realized the necessity of building black institutions to serve black folks in the age of segregation. So in 1902, Walker started The St. Luke Herald, a newspaper that came out of the Order, to serve the community. Then she started the St. Luke Penny Bank. Walker was president, making her the first black woman to charter a bank in the country. The bank grew and then merged with two other black banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker led the board of directors. She was also involved in many black organizations, both locally and nationally, including the Richmond Council of Colored Women, the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners, the International Council for Women of Darker Races, the National Training Center for Girls, and the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls.

Walker also tried to find places for black women in politics, despite the limitations of Jim Crow. She was involved in something called Virginia Lily-Black Republican Party, which, like it sounds, was an attempt to organize black voters to demand rights within the Republican Party’s broad structure, but on their own as white Republicans, few as they were in the South, had largely distanced themselves from the Civil War and civil rights background and were trying for a lily-white party. As a member of the party, she was a candidate for state superintendent of public education in 1921. She was also involved in getting black women in Richmond registered to vote after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Everything she did was around black self-reliance, which seemed the only way for the black community to prosper during her lifetime. She knew everyone, from Booker T. Washington to W.E.B. DuBois and was perhaps the most important female civil rights figure, outside of Ida Wells, in her lifetime.

For all her work, Walker received an honorary degree from Virginia Union University in 1925. Things weren’t all great. Her son accidentally shot and killed his own father, thinking he was a burglar. And outside of that unspeakable personal tragedy, the early twentieth century was a terrible time for African-Americans across the South, with violent racism the dominating feature of life. But at the same time, no one did more to build black capitalism than Walker. Operating within the limited framework of the period, with tremendous boundaries placed upon what African-Americans could do, Walker did as much as anyone in the nation to create the stable institutions such as banks and newspapers that would allow the black community to survive as prosper as best it could.

Walker’s home in a National Park site now. It’s a quite worthy visit, although you run the chance of being overwhelmed by school groups. As you can imagine, it’s a popular field trip site for Richmond schoolchildren.

Maggie Walker died in 1934. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

When I discussed Arthur Ashe the other day, I mentioned the sad state of black cemeteries. So it was with Evergreen. But in part because Walker is buried there, the community has recently sought to rejuvenate the cemetery. It actually got quite a bit of attention, such as this Washington Post article. When I was there back in early May, they had made some quality progress, such as a new parking area with picnic tables. They had hacked back some of the vegetation as well. But you can’t rejuvenate decades of neglect overnight. So many gravestones have fallen over, much of it is still inaccessible without venturing through tangles and trees. Again, the difference between how white cemeteries are maintained and black cemeteries in the South is quite striking, moreover state funding often goes to historical white cemeteries and not to historical black cemeteries. Gee, I wonder why that is.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. I don’t send individual thank you notes because I assume people would rather not be bothered, but I do thank all of you. If you would like this series to visit the graves of more black leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. P.B.S. Pinchback is buried in New Orleans and Hiram Revels is in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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