When you finish reading Banking On Freedom: Black Women and U.S. Finance Before the New Deal, expect to feel compelled to read it again. Then again. Then a fourth and possibly a fifth time.
The story of Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman to finance, open, and run a bank in the United States, just keeps on opening up to you as you read cycle through the different hats you wear—a woman, an American woman, an African American woman, a business woman, a woman pushing dirt, and every combination thereof. It’s almost too much to be believed.
Maggie Walker was the first Black woman to fund, own, and run a bank scarcely needs to be mentioned. “There had been some white women who had gone on to become presidents of banks,” points out author Shennett Garrett Scott, PhD, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi. “But many of those white women had stepped into that role after their husbands had died.”
Walker’s shattering of that glass ceiling wasn’t the only ground broken by St. Luke Bank, which at its height operated in 20 states with assets totalling $500 million in today’s money.
In Dr. Scott’s view, Walker pioneered a whole new approach to pushing dirt, a Black woman’s approach, which can inform how we do business today—in Dr. Scott’s words, “meeting people where they were, not accepting society’s standards of what they were worth.”
Walker had understood that many women in her time and place—1888 to 1935 in the scope of Dr. Scott’s book—worked as domestics in white households, laborers under white supervisors, teaching position where they could easily be laid off, under constant threat of sexual violence.
The mainstream system of credit—then as now—had built-in biases against African Americans and women. Walker devoted herself to creating a place where Black women in particular, and the Black community a whole, could come together, become financially literate, and obtain loans—even as small as a few dollars—to start businesses, buy property, and build wealth.
She broke new ground in using non-traditional markers of creditworthiness—rent payments, church tithing, etc.—to establish her borrowers’ fiscal responsibility. Dr. Scott describes her approach as “community capitalism”—investing in what was around her for the benefit of everyone. It’s a model that today’s community, justly frustrated with the current state of capitalism, could borrow from in an effort to reform and thrive within the system rather than throw it out.
“Walker was intent on helping women to have their own space,” Dr. Scott said, “willing to take chances on women who wanted to start their own businesses.”
Walker gets major points for audacity, too. Within her town of Richmond, VA, the former Confederate capital, she did not just start businesses in the Black districts. Instead, she established the first branch of St. Luke Bank inside St. Luke Emporium, the department store she founded right in the middle of the main Richmond business district.
Additionally, as the largest employer of white-collar Black women in Richmond (probably in all of the U.S.) she subjected hostile white eyes to the sight of well-dressed Black female employees walking in and out at all hours.
They didn’t make it easy for her. Government officials launched constant efforts to harass her and her employees, take their property, or undermine them. They even made sure that a saloon opened up nearby to ensure a constant presence of drunk, threatening white men nearby.
Dr. Scott doesn’t stress it in the book, but the Black community wasn’t always on her side either. Some Black leaders tried to paint her as too big for her britches, trying to cut her down to size.
But Walker had a vision, and the determination to carry it out. In addition to innovating simple loan terms that worked for the Black community, she even offered a program of no-down-payment home loans that her employees could use to become homeowners.
All this perseverance from a woman born a slave in the midst of tragedy and horror. Maggie Lena Walker was conceived when her enslaved mother was raped by a Confederate soldier. After the Civil War, when her stepfather was killed under mysterious circumstances, the rapist biological father resurfaced to try and take mixed-race Maggie Lena, light-skinned enough to pass as white, away to a better life in white society.
Maggie Lena’s mother fought tooth and nail to keep her daughter, believing that even in financial straits, she could give her daughter a better life by raising her with virtue, intelligence, and love. This instilled Maggie Lena with a strong sense of Black identity and a burning drive to make good on her mother’s investment in her.
Walker went to school and married into the emerging Black wealthy elite. But she never forgot her roots among freed slaves; she felt a strong urge to give back.
“She was an exceptional woman in many ways,” Dr. Scott said. “Beyond the banking field, she was a supreme activist and very involved in national issues related to the Black freedom struggle.”
Dr. Scott, a Dallas native, wife and mother of three with three grandchildren, sees much of herself in Walker’s story. Having worked as a loan processor in the runup to the subprime mortgage crisis, she saw her employers getting rich off of unscrupulous lending practices.
“When the market crashed,” Dr. Scott recalls, “I saw the way people of color, especially Black and brown women, were being blamed in many ways for the crisis. I wanted to understand what Black womens’ relationship to wealth and finance was like in the past.”
She began taking history classes to advance her education and eventually become a professor—all while still working and raising her kids.
“I said, ‘God, if you get me into grad school, I will never stop!’” she remembers of that time.
Eventually she earned her PhD. Along the way, she learned that idea of Blacks wielding financial clout just before and just after the Civil War was far from unusual, despite the crushing pressure of racism and segregation.
Free Blacks had bank accounts, invested in bank stocks, traded discounted notes, loaned money to each other, owned property and owned businesses. Some enslaved Black people did all the same things as well—earned their own money, kept in banks with the cooperation and collaboration of enslavers.
Before and after the Civil War, Black people formed secret societies to consolidate wealth. The Independent Order of St. Luke was one such society. Walker’s emporium and bank sprang from her membership in this society.
Branching off from Walker’s story, Investing in Freedom tells stories of the Independent Order of St. Luke buying property in Harlem, New York, helping it become the hotbed of African American culture that it is today.
The story of Maggie Lena Walker, one woman who pushed so much dirt against such long odds, is the one that sticks with you, though, on multiple readings of Banking on Freedom. Dr. Scott points out, with palpable satisfaction, that the Richmond mansion Walker built is now a museum to her impact, and Walker is memorialized in a Richmond monument that stands adjacent to the former site of a statue of Robert E. Lee (now removed).
“If you go to Richmond,” Dr. Scott said proudly, “you will find Maggie Lena!”
To Dr. Scott, her story represents “the importance of taking chances, and surrounding yourself with a circle of support, people who understand your vision, who will encourage your vision, who will provide you sustenance when you’re fighting for your vision when everyone else is against you.”
You can purchase Dr. Scott’s book here!