For African Americans, the early 20th century brought Jim Crow Laws that limited intellectual opportunity and economic access. Maggie L. Walker and the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL) confronted economic, race, and gender discrimination by providing security to the African American community through insurance, finance, and commerce. Mrs. Walker exhibited leadership qualities at an early age and quickly rose up through the ranks of the IOSL. She viewed the IOSL as a helping hand available to the African American community. It was capable of righting wrongs in American society and, like Saint Luke, healing the suffering of men, women, and children. More...
In 1867, Mary Prout founded the IOSL in Baltimore, MD to care for the sick and provide burial money to newly freed African Americans after the Civil War. The Order soon grew into a fraternal society providing a social outlet encouraging self-help and integrity among its members. A young Maggie Mitchell, the daughter of a widowed laundress, joined her local Richmond branch of the IOSL as a teenager. By 1895, IOSL leadership identified the need for individual insurance policies as a priority. Under the direction of W. M. T. Forester, the IOSL was poised to be a growing force in the insurance business. However, by 1899 it was close to bankruptcy with membership of only 1,080 and a $400.00 debt. Walker's hard work, meticulous record keeping, and mastery of the rituals resulted in her unopposed nomination as Right Worthy Grand Secretary Treasurer of the IOSL in 1899. Within a year, she doubled financial membership and grew the treasury to $1,288.98.
Mrs. Walker recognized the changing needs of African Americans at the turn of the century. She concentrated on using economic empowerment to resist Jim Crow laws. Walker urged the IOSL to establish a bank, newspaper, and a store. With the successful charter of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, Walker became the first African American woman to found a bank and serve as its president. Financing hundreds of business and home loans, Walker's bank provided an opportunity for the black community to attain the "American Dream." She applied her commitment to cooperation when she merged her bank with two other black-owned banks after the stock market crash of 1929. With her savvy tactics and pooled resources, the new Consolidated Bank & Trust survived the Great Depression. When Mrs. Walker opened her St. Luke Emporium in 1905 on Richmond's Broad Street commercial corridor, she not only created jobs for twenty employees but she brought her tactic of economic resistance to the front door of segregated Richmond.