Statue will honor business leader in a city of monuments

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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A bust of Maggie L. Walker stands outside the Richmond
school bearing her name. Photo by Rick DeBerry

Richmond is filled with monuments, and sometimes they make news.

When cycling’s world championships were held in the city during September, a group protested a race route circling the statues of Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue.

The protest echoed a national outcry against the display of Confederate symbols after the massacre of nine people in June at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C. Some critics urged Richmond to remove Confederate statues from Monument Avenue, putting them in museums instead.

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones offered a different solution. “Rather than tearing down, we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history,” he said in a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In October, the city revealed plans for a statue dedicated not to a politician or a general but a Richmond business leader who used private enterprise to improve people’s lives.

That business leader was Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934), the first African-American woman to found a bank in the U.S. She also was a national leader in groups fighting segregation and promoting the empowerment of women.

The site picked for the statue is a triangle-shaped plaza off West Broad Street not far from where Walker’s bank operated in Richmond’s Jackson Ward. That choice raised some eyebrows, because the mayor had mentioned a Walker statue as a possible way to increase diversity on Monument Avenue.

If the Walker statue were placed on Monument Avenue, it would be the second commemorating an African-American and the first honoring a woman.

A statue of African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was erected in 1996 amid a storm of controversy. While the Richmond City Council and the Ashe family supported placing the statue on Monument Avenue, multiple factions were opposed, with some advocating alternative sites as more appropriate and others calling for a different statue design.

Unlike Ashe, Walker had a personal connection to the Civil War. She was born during the war to a former slave who was assistant cook in the Richmond mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy. (An unforgiving city government tore down Van Lew’s home after her death in 1900.)

The young Maggie Mitchell was a teacher for three years before marrying brick contractor Armstead Walker Jr.  After her marriage, she increased her involvement in the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal society she had joined as a teenager. In 1899, she was named to the organization’s top position, executive secretary, and held the post for the rest of her life.

Under Walker’s leadership, St. Luke flourished and branched out into businesses that could aid its members. She established a newspaper to advertise black businesses and started a large department store to sell inexpensive goods and provide employment for women.

In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank with the goal of pooling members’ money to provide them with loans. The bank later became Consolidated Bank & Trust, the oldest continually operated African-American bank in the country until its sale in 2009.

Walker began these ventures at a time when no women were allowed to vote and Jim Crow laws were tightening their grip on African-Americans across the South.

Walker wasn’t a passive observer of these conditions. She served on the boards of the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Virginia Interracial Commission. Late in life, she became a role model for the disabled, continuing to travel and give speeches despite having to use a wheelchair.
Walker’s two-story Victorian house in Jackson Ward is preserved as she left it as a National Historical Site by the National Park Service. Nonetheless, she likely is best known in her hometown as the namesake of a school. 

In 1937, three years after her death, Maggie Walker High School was founded as one of Richmond’s two black high schools. It produced a long list of notable alumni, including Ashe, pro football Hall-of-Famer Willie Lanier and NBA star Bob Dandridge before it closed in the 1990s.

In 2001, the building was brought back to life as the renovated home for a regional governor’s school. Today, the Maggie L. Walker School for Government and International Studies often is ranked among best high schools in the nation. (In the interest of full disclosure, both of my daughters are graduates of the school, and I have contributed to its foundation.)

In announcing plans for her statue, Jones described Walker as “a revolutionary leader in business, a champion for breaking down barriers between communities and showed incredible strength as a person that came out of extraordinarily challenging circumstances to create great things.”

A statue honoring that kind of courage and initiative is good news for a city of monuments.

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