When Maggie Lena Walker founded the St Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, she became the first Black woman to open and operate a bank in United States history. Serving the bank as president, and later as chairperson, Walker realised her vision of supporting black communities, businesses and individuals in the segregated city of Richmond, Virginia.
Black customers of white-owned banks were racially discriminated against, often being charged higher interest rates or being refused loans based on stereotypes that they would not be reliable in repaying them. Some white-owned banks would not accept black customers at all. The African American community in Richmond decided to open and support Black-owned banks, and by doing so cultivated a thriving and financially empowered community.
St Luke Penny Savings Bank collected its first deposits from members of the Independent Order of St. Luke’s (IOSL), an African-American charitable society which Walker also led. Through these deposits it was possible for the Bank to offer loans to the local community of Jackson Ward - which was known at the time as the ‘Black Wall Street’, and the ‘Harlem of the South’ due to business and entertainment booming in the area. Students received loans to allow them to pursue higher education, as did black businesses, which in turn were able to create more jobs.
The St Luke Penny Savings Bank survived through the Great Depression when many other banks did not, and merged with two struggling black-owned banks. Operating from 1930 as Consolidated, the Bank retained black-ownership status with majority African American shareholders until 2005.
Maggie Walker's story is one of empowerment, innovation, and community in the face of oppression. You can read more about her here: