The close of the American Civil War marked the full-scale emancipation of the nation’s four million enslaved African Americans. In the following decade of Reconstruction, African Americans in the former Confederacy embraced their newfound liberties. These ranged from admittance to public schools to local and national political participation. However, the progress African Americans experienced during Reconstruction was reversed during the following half century of Jim Crow policies.
In the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws disenfranchised African American citizens and kept the U.S. racially divided, and as leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), Maggie Lena Walker responded to these injustices through social activism. Concern for her immediate and extended community fueled her leadership. She pressed for racial and gender equality, education reform, job creation, and business ownership for African Americans across the country. More...
The IOSL’s St. Luke Hall, where Walker enacted her vision of equality, held office space, an auditorium, a regalia department, a printing press, and even a bank vault. She oversaw production in the IOSL’s regalia department, ensuring that it created pins, pendants, sashes and other wearable items exhibiting IOSL symbols. Insignia, brochures, fans and even thermometers proudly displayed the organization’s achievements in membership and benefits, symbolizing to others that they too should join the ranks.
As editor-in-chief of the St. Luke Herald, Mrs. Walker reached the ever-growing St. Luke community that eventually held 100,000 members stretching across twenty-four states. The Independent Order of St. Luke’s Juvenile Department, co-founded by Walker, was a successful initiative. It provided positive stimulus and leadership opportunities for children in African American communities. All of her ventures shared the pragmatic goal of creating economic opportunities while broadcasting a beacon of successful activism.
At the height of her career, in 1921, Walker ran on an all black ticket for Superintendent of Instruction for Virginia Public Schools. She was the first woman in Virginia to run for statewide office, gaining over 20,000 votes. She also joined boards of directors for advocacy organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Council of Colored Women, Federation of Women’s Clubs, National Association of Colored Women, National Association of Wage Earners and others.
Mrs. Walker’s work with the IOSL and other African American associations and her campaign for public office established a platform to promote gender equality, women’s suffrage, African American economic uplift, the extermination of Jim Crow laws, and education for all.