All sources are cited throughout the article with a complete reference list at the bottom of the page.
On February 5th, we honored Maggie Lena Walker. Maggie organized pre-registration meetings in in 1920 in Richmond, Virginia after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Those meetings led to a huge voter registration drive for African American women and resulted in the highest rate of African American women registered to vote in Richmond that year. Not only did Maggie lead this voter registration movement, fighting against discrimination and racism in the voter registration process for Black women. In 1921, Maggie became the first and only African American woman to run on a gubernatorial ticket in Richmond. While Maggie is best remembered for founding the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, she also founded or was an active member of organizations which supported women’s suffrage.
Introduction: Making the Voting Rights Biography of Maggie Lena Walker
There is a lot of information on Maggie Lena Walker. Her childhood and the year of her birth. which she modestly tried to hide, is no secret, unlike too many of the Black women suffragettes where data is hard to find. The daughter of a freed slave and businesswoman, she was born to a mixed race couple who couldn’t marry. She was involved with the semi-successful first protest against segregated graduations the day before she would graduate high school. She is most famous for being the first African American woman to own a bank, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. That bank survived the Great Depression by merging with Second Street Saving Bank and becoming the present-day Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which until it was sold in 2009 to the larger White-owned Adams National Bank (No author, 2009), was the oldest continuously existing Black-owned and Black-run bank in the country.
Her advocacy and work embodied the principles of the modern-day African Holiday Kwanzaa:
(Unity - Joining together as a family, community and race);
(Self-determination - Responsibility for one's own future);
(Collective Work and Responsibility - Building the community together and solving any problems as a group)
(Cooperative Economics - The community building and profiting from its own businesses);
(Purpose - The goal of working together to build community and further the African culture);
(Creativity - Using new ideas to create a more beautiful and successful community); and,
(Faith - Honoring African ancestors, traditions and leaders and celebrating past triumphs over adversity) (Watson, S., 2004). If you want to know who Maggie Walker was, those principles sum up her work entirely. There are also many references at the end of this article for further reading.
Maggie Walker has a statue to her and her house has been preserved as a historical site. Her full name is etched in stone in Richmond and by historical societies. Yet, she is one of the erased Black women when it comes to her work with the suffragette movement. For all the information about her and her great financial work, none is more lacking then her political work. Her activism for the vote is commonly reduced to a mere sentence: “Maggie also spearheaded 1920 voter registration drives after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment”. It’s as if her work for Black women suffrage was not interwoven throughout her speeches; her run on an all-black ticket; and, her entire work for Black women’s equality.
“In a 1989 essay, the historian Elsa Barkley Brown enlists the career of Maggie Lena Walker in an exploration of the concept of ‘womanism.’ As Brown aptly charges, feminist scholars and activists have operated largely without reference to black women's experience, and as a result they tend to assume that gender struggles and race struggles can be separated from each other and opposed to one another. Black women's activism, when it has been noticed, has thus frequently been misconstrued. Black women who stood up for the race, women like Maggie Walker, are not ranked among the great figures of the women's rights tradition; they are seen as having devoted themselves to the black struggle, not women's struggle.” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 81)
Therefore, Maggie Lena Walker, you are erased no more. We are bringing political power back to your name, and headlines will hail you as an entrepreneur, business woman, educator, and civil and
voting rights leader. For all those reasons stated above, this article will focus
only on Maggie Lena Walker’s voting rights work. A huge thanks goes out to the Maggie Lena Walker Foundation for aiding in my research into Maggie’s suffrage activities.
Maggie Walker's Speeches Reveal Her Heart for Suffrage
Maggie Walker believed the vote was important in furthering African Americans as a whole. We know from her diaries and journals, newspaper articles, and small quotes from her speeches her views concerning suffrage and the importance of it for the entire African American community. We also know from these same sources her great work in leading a huge voter registration drive; being the first and only African American woman to run on a gubernatorial ticket in Richmond, Virginia; organizing pre-registration meetings in Richmond; founding and being a member of organizations which supported women’s suffrage; and, fighting against discrimination and racism in the voter registration process for Black women immediately after the passage of the 19
Maggie was supportive of African American men attaining the right to vote through the 15
th Amendment (1870), understanding progress is slow moving, but still significant nonetheless. In New Jersey in 1903, during her speaking tour in the urban North East promoting the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, an article quoted a portion of her speech in which she made a statement about the role of women being to get behind men to make sure they were voting in the best interests of women. This quote is not seen as anti-suffrage or anti-women’s rights, but rather her response to the moment of voting rights just recently being taken away from Black men during the Jim Crow Era.
“In Richmond, as elsewhere, a system of race and class oppression including segregation, disenfranchisement, relegation to the lowest rungs of the occupational strata, and enforcement of racial subordination through intimidation was fully in place by the early twentieth century. In Richmond between 1885 and 1915 all Blacks were removed from the city council; the only predominately Black political district, Jackson Ward, was gerrymandered out of existence; the state constitutional convention disenfranchised the majority of Black Virginians, first the railroads and streetcars and later the jails, juries, and neighborhoods were segregated; Black principals were removed from the public schools and the right of Blacks to teach was questioned; the state legislature decided to substitute white for Black control of Virginia Normal School and College and to strike ‘and College’ from both name and function; and numerous other restrictions were imposed.” (
Jacqueline, Cynthia, & Claudine, 2004, p. 55)
To her, the fact that African American men were being disenfranchised was all the more reason for women to make sure men who could vote did, and to further ensure they voted in the best interests of all African Americans.
Maggie was very much against segregation and sexism. Though lighter skinned with her White father, Maggie was still very much Black. Like so many other African American women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, she understood the intersectionality of her race and gender, and the special barriers she faced. Sometime between 1903 and 1912, possibly from articles of European women going to jail over their right to vote, her thinking shifted from her 1903 statements to a stance of women to have a more active and public role in politics: it was no longer enough to make sure only men were as informed as possible; women also needed to vote and women voting was the most important thing to her.
In another speech, Maggie calls out men to be good “race men”, playing on African American’s men’s thinking of a man’s role being to protect women. She states that supporting women in business and political ventures is also protecting them and furthering African Americans as a whole. Maggie’s work in establishing a thriving Black business community in Richmond has been credited with providing the initial infrastructure necessary for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60’s.
The 19th Amendment's Ratification
In 1912, at the National Association of Colored Women’s biennial convention in Hampton, Virginia, “[i]n the course of addressing the convention on ‘Women and Business,’ Maggie Lena Walker…injected a single sentence on behalf of woman suffrage. Women were rebelling against their unjust wages, Walker asserted, ‘yet Capital is deaf-and will never hear their cries, until the women force Capital to hear them at the ballot box, and to be just and honest to them as to the men.’ The
Southern Workman, the magazine published by Hampton Institute, praised the speech but did not report its slant on woman suffrage.” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, pp. 80-81)
The Women’s Suffrage Movement has a very volatile and racist history in Virginia as it was aligned with White Supremacy, by both those who opposed Women’s Suffrage and for those who supported it. This brings to light the fragile considerations of Black women publicly supporting the right for women to vote: it was both a dangerous position for a Black woman to align herself with suffrage and a position that could tank women’s suffrage as a whole. At the same time, to align oneself- privately or publicly – against women’s suffrage could be seen as supporting those using racism as a reason for denying women the right to vote. (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, pp. 68-81). Aside from these considerations, Black women knew they would be subject to the same disenfranchisement laws that kept Black men from voting.
The day the 19
th Amendment was ratified, Maggie was not in Richmond to register herself to vote; however, she still experienced the benefits of the ratification immediately in a very unique way. Mid-August of 1920, before the 19
th Amendment was ratified, Maggie Walker hosted a huge annual conference for her organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke. After the conference, she took a vacation, traveling to Atlantic City for a little while and visiting friends in New York. She then headed to Philadelphia to attend the National Negro Business League Convention.
At this convention, for the very first time, the National Negro Business League allowed women to hold high office within the organization as the League responds to the moment of the ratification of the 19
th Amendment, honoring women who in federal politics were attempting to achieve full inclusion. Maggie Walker and Mrs. Booker T. Washington, as she was referred to in the newspapers, were appointed to high offices within the organization that they had never been allowed to hold prior to that point.
According to Maggie’s diaries, she registered to vote the very next day after arriving back from the convention on September 9
th or 10
th after paying her poll tax of $1.50. There is an important reminder for us in Maggie detailing how she paid a poll tax to register to vote because, as stated earlier, even though Black women knew that suffrage for women represented a fundamental step forward, they also knew that any rule or law that was on the books that already limited the vote for Black men would also apply to them. There was a widespread awareness among Black women that voting was a good thing technically; however, Black women weren’t going to be able to take advantage of it. The 1902 Virginia State Constitution which instituted the poll tax applied to Black women now, as did the same restrictions that had been in effect for decades in Virginia that eliminated 90% of the African American male vote.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, prior to September 20
The New Leader reported, “Swamped by a rush of women voters, both white and colored, Central Registrar William S. Woodson threw up his hands this morning and called for help” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 83). “A second room and a deputy were found so that the crowd could be segregated. ‘It was impossible for Central Registrar Woodson to supervise so many, and as a result the whole throng, white and colored, were milling about giving each other aid, suggestion and instructions, regardless of the plain provision of the consitition’” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, pp. 83-84).
“When the registration books were opened in early September, Virginia women initially presented themselves in modest numbers. With about two weeks to go, however, observers in many parts of the state reported a surge of applicants. In Richmond, the
Times-Dispatch called the numbers ‘amazing’ and ‘phenomenal’. The editor of the
Times-Dispatch had every reason to be impressed, having claimed to the last ditch that white women did not want the vote and would not exercise it if they had it. Once the women of Richmond proved the contrary, the
Times-Dispatch began to keep daily tabs on the proceedings at city hall.” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 83)
Maggie Walker played a pivotal role in the surge of women registrants in Richmond.
Maggie Walker's Organization of Pre-registration Meetings
When Maggie arrived back from Philadelphia, she not only registered herself to vote but organized pre-registration rallies and meetings. Interestingly, these pre-registration meetings only began to happen when Maggie arrived back to Richmond, as there’s no record of such meetings before. She hosted one of them in St. Luke Hall, and there were other meetings being held by local leaders. During these meetings the community was trying to figure out how they were going to ensure Black women were able to register to vote and who was going to take the lead.
She hosted one of the meetings in St. Luke Hall, and there were other meetings being held by local leaders. “On September 12
th, the black attorney Giles B. Jackson convened a committee of professional and activist women, who selected Maggie Walker as their chair. Within a few days, the committee organized first of several mass meetings” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 83). Maggie Walker had a passion for getting as many women as possible to vote; and her actions detail how she wasn’t disillusioned in how difficult it would be Women of Color to register and vote. She was going to do anything she could to get as many Black women as possible registered to vote, and we see evidence in her diaries and in the newspapers that she really worked as hard as she could of. As soon as you see her mention she registered to vote in her diaries, you begin to see references to these meetings that were held locally. “Diverse white women’s organizations had in the meantime been conducting campaigns of their own and the results were immediately felt at city hall.” (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 83)
Maggie Walker Fights Against Discrimination and Helps Register Thousands of Black Women
Being already registered herself, Maggie Walker still went to City Hall on September 20
th or 21
st with a goal of making sure women who were showing up were as well prepared as possible. Although there were no minutes from the pre-registration meetings Maggie attended, it seemed that one of the goals of those meetings were to spread information. Maggie went to City Hall to help guide the process. Her influence was so much that she raised enough of an issue to make it into the papers and even receive a subheadline “MAGGIE WALKER PROTESTS”. The results of her going to City Hall and advocating for Black women were chronicled by