Richmond, Virginia is home to Jackson Ward, the “Harlem of the South” in the early 20th century. One of its most famous inhabitants was Maggie L. Walker, the first African-American woman to found a bank. You can visit her home in historic Jackson Ward and learn more about this inspiring woman.
When Maggie L. Walker was born in 1864, the Civil War was raging, with Richmond serving as the capital of the Confederacy. Maggie’s parents were Elizabeth, an African-American maid, and an Irish Confederate soldier, and she was born at her mother’s place of employment, the famous Van Lew house on Richmond’s Church Hill. The Van Lews were well-known Unionists, with Elizabeth Van Lew running a spy ring that helped provide information to the Union generals. It’s unclear if Maggie’s mother was enslaved or free or what the nature of her relationship with Maggie’s father truly was. Maggie’s mother married George Mitchell when Maggie was young, and they moved to a different Van Lew property elsewhere in the city.
Maggie taught school after her own graduation from Richmond Public Schools but left teaching when she married in 1886. She had two sons with her husband, Armstead Walker, Jr., who died in 1915.
Mrs. Walker was a member of the charitable organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and became a national leader in its ranks. In 1902, she founded a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, and in 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. By serving as its President, she became the first African-American woman to charter a bank in the United States. At both the newspaper and bank, she promoted the employment of Black women, giving them a much better career path than they faced in general Richmond society. In 1921, Mrs. Walker ran for Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, thereby making her the first Black woman to run for statewide office.
Mrs. Walker was a well-known and impressive figure in Richmond, and her home in the heart of Jackson Ward still stands as a testament to her legacy of education, empowerment, and Civil Rights advancement.
Maggie L. Walker’s historic home is part of the National Park Service and has reopened from the pandemic closures. Tours are available on the hour several times a day. Call to book ahead of your visit to ensure availability.
Plan to spend 15-30 minutes exploring the small museum attached to the site. Here you’ll learn about Mrs. Walker and her storied life. Be sure to talk to the enthusiastic park rangers and get your Junior Ranger stamp.
At your tour time, the ranger will lead you to the front of the home and tell you more about Mrs. Walker’s life and times. You’ll learn about how her life was affected by Jim Crow laws, and how she and her fellow Jackson Ward neighbors championed the rights of African-Americans during this difficult time period.
When you enter the home, you’ll be struck by the opulent furnishings. It was important to her to showcase an upscale lifestyle so people would trust her bank with its money. The parlors and study have original furniture and her book collection. The library also has portraits of other famous African-Americans from the time period, many of whom visited Mrs. Walker in this very home.
The dining room hosted the likes of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
The kitchen was used for informal family dinners. Mrs. Walker’s two sons and their families all lived with her so it was a full house!
In the back bedroom, you’ll find an elevator added to the home in 1928! By this time, Mrs. Walker was confined to a wheelchair but this allowed her to still be active in the community.
At this time, tours of the upstairs are not available.
End your tour back in the courtyard where you can pose in front of the mural.
To continue learning about Maggie Walker, drive a few blocks west on Broad Street to see the Maggie L. Walker statue.
A few blocks west on Leigh Street is the Maggie L. Walker High School, now a Governor’s magnet school.
When visiting Richmond, it’s important to spend time in Jackson Ward, learning about the success of its citizens in spite of the Jim Crow laws from the early 20th century. Spend some time walking its streets, visiting its historic sites, including the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, and eating at its delicious restaurants. It will give you a fuller history of the city and its citizens!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: 6 and up (rangers will customize the tour to your children’s ages and attention spans)
- Tour time: 1 hour
- Gift shop located in museum
- Transportation: There is usually plenty of street parking along 2nd Street. There are several pay lots available as well.
- Dining options: The historic site is located in Jackson Ward which is one of Richmond’s most vibrant food scenes – check out its tourism site for ideas. My favorite area restaurant is Mama J’s, two blocks from the site.
- Hotel options: Read my Richmond guide for ideas.
- Nearby attractions include: Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Library of Virginia, Science Museum of Virginia, and Children’s Museum of Richmond
Books to Read:
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