Maggie Lena Mitchell: America’s First Female Bank President

By Duchess Magazine

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head.”

A daughter of former slaves, her less than privileged background didn’t define her; Maggie Lena Mitchell shattered glass ceilings in 1903, an era where the finance industry saw total domination of rulership by white men with white women struggling for opportunities – she became the first African American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States.

African-American teacher and businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker, born in Richmond, Virginia July 15, 1864 was also a foremost civil rights leader dedicated to the success and betterment of the African Americans and women.

A strong advocate of African American women’s rights, she served on the board of trustees for several women’s groups, most notably, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Virginia Industrial School for Girls and as Vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) among others.

At age 14, she joined the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL) organization, a fraternal order which provided utmost health care for ailing African Americans and helped families make burial arrangements as well as promote racial solidarity.

Her genuine zeal pushed her to serve in numerous capacities landing to the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, a position she held until her death.

In 1902, Walker established The St. Luke Herald newspaper in order to boost communication between the Order and the public.

A year later, history was rewritten with the birth of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank,
Maggie Lena Mitchell served as the bank’s first president, landing the title first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States and become president.

Walker also was noted for being a model for the disabled, striving regardless of her condition; diagnosed with diabetes, in 1907 she suffered a fall which led to damage of the nerves in her knees and consequent paralysis, by 1928, she was confined to a wheelchair but continued to do great exploits regardless.

Maggie Lena Walker died in 1934 at age 70.

In honour of her significant contributions, in 2000, Walker was honored as one of the first group of Virginia Women in History.

On July 15, 2017, a statue of Walker, designed by Antonio Tobias Mendez was unveiled on Broad Street in Richmond.

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