The first woman to start a bank — a black woman — finally gets her due in the Confederacy’s capital

By Michael S. Rosenwald July 14, 2017

Maggie L. Walker started a newspaper. She was the first country’s first woman to found a bank. She was a humanitarian, a teacher, an icon of her community in 1920s Richmond. Also she was also the daughter of a former slave.

Walker’s accomplishments in the face of racial oppression and segregation have never been honored in her hometown. This was done in the same way as the Confederate leaders whose statues are the focal point of downtown Richmond.

Over 153 years later, she was born in the former capital of the Confederacy, Walker will get her own monument. It is a towering statue of her as she lived — her glasses pinned to her lapel, a checkbook in hand.

“She’s ready to work,” said Antonio “Toby” Mendez, the celebrated Maryland sculptor. He brought Walker back to life, 10 feet tall, in bronze. “She wasn’t just raising the bar for her community. She was working to create opportunities.”

Community leaders have for decades wanted to honor Walker, who was the first African American woman to found a bank. St. Luke’s Penny Savings, which gave loans to black business owners & residents at fair rates. Then recycled the interest earned to keep building the community.

Maggie L. Walker was also the daughter of a former slave.

“Let us put our moneys together,” Walker said in 1901. She said “Let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves. We then will reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Walker also opened an emporium for African Americans to shop and sell their goods. This allowed them to conduct commerce in an environment free of discrimination. She refused to tolerate any oppression of people of color — enough was enough.

Now that she’s being publicly memorialized, her admirers are overjoyed.

“Children and adults alike need to see the missing pieces of history,” said Gary Flowers. He was a Richmond resident who helped lead the effort to honor Walker. “We are honored to see Mrs. Walker in her full glory.”

But at the same time, Flowers said he and others are concerned about the future of the city’s monuments. As he put it, “a foreign nation that lost to the United States.”

While New Orleans and other cities have removed Confederate monuments, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who is black, is moving forward. He plans to recast signage and add context to the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and others along Monument Avenue.

Instead of tearing down the controversial monuments, Stoney wants to add new ones. His goal has been devoted to the heroes who fought against slavery and championed civil rights. Those who have criticized New Orleans and other cities for dismantling Confederate history have lauded his restraint.

Others accuse him of dodging the issue and essentially sanctioning the continued celebration of slavery’s proponents and defenders.

“I think it really becomes a math equation,” Flowers said. “For equal display of honor, we must add statues of African Americans. Those who have been left out of the history books.”

Mendez, the sculptor, was chosen in part because of his own history with projects honoring civil rights leaders.

His work includes statues of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at the Maryland State House. Also Ernest Everett Just (a famous African American biologist) at a Prince George’s County Middle School. And Indian independence and civil rights leader Mohandas Gandhi in Long Island, N.Y.

Mendez said he thinks the coming years will see more efforts like the one honoring Walker. But not just honoring more African American figures in bronze, but female ones as well. “These places bring people together,” Mendez said. “They tell stories that should be told.”

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