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Champion of the Black Community Is Given Her Rightful Due in Richmond

Maggie L. Walker fought segregation her whole life in the former capital of the Confederacy. Now her statue towers over the Virginia city

The daughter of an enslaved woman, Maggie L. Walker led the fight for civil rights and women's rights in Richmond, Virginia. (National Museum of American History)
smithsonian.com

In Richmond, Virginia, a city full of monuments to Confederate leaders, a statue was erected on Saturday to Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a formerly enslaved cook, who became a champion of the black community in the early 20th century, and was, notably, the first woman to charter a bank in the United States.

“She is in her rightful place in the heart of this city,” Liza Mickens, Walker's great-great-granddaughter, tells Vanessa Remmers of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 10-foot-tall statue stands near Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood, once a thriving center of African-American business culture that was often referred to as the "Harlem of the South." Much of that thriving growth was due to Walker, who chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903 in the neighborhood to provide the loans and economic assistance to African-Americans when other banks wouldn't.

Walker's activism extended far beyond banking, however, reports Ned Oliver for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“She was an entrepreneur. She was a teacher. She was a civil rights activist. She spoke up for women’s rights, African-American rights. She was on the same level as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois," Ajena Rogers, supervisory park ranger of Walker's Jackson Ward home, now a National Historic Site, tells Oliver.

Fifty years before the influential Montgomery, Alabama, bus strike, Walker used her newspaper to organize a strike of Richmond's streetcar system in protest of its segregation. The strike proved "instrumental" in the streetcar company's bankruptcy two months later, the Richmond Planet declared at the time.

Walker encouraged her neighbors to patronize African-American-owned businesses, and set an example by founding her own department store in 1904. Unlike the white-owned department stores in Richmond, her store didn't force African-Americans to use a separate entrance and let them try on clothing before buying it (something that was common practice in places where white women shopped).

Walker also helped found Richmond's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and at near the end of her life, formed the first Girl Scout troop for African-Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1932. After her death in 1934, her funeral was attended by thousands, reports Gregory Schneider for the Washington Post.

Walker's descendants hope her prominent statue will educate more people about the work Maggie Walker did for Richmond and America.

“I want people to feel like they are welcomed into her family,” great-great-granddaughter Lisa Monique Walker Martin tells Remmers. “I want people to be able to come to her — because she had barriers she had to overcome. If she can do all that, then we don’t have any excuse.”

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