Green and white awnings and a small sign are all that distinguish the Richmond home of Maggie L. Walker from neighboring duplexes that have been carefully restored to their appearance circa 1925. What distinguished Walker in her day was her skill at overcoming all the obstacles society could place before a black woman living under Jim Crow segregation laws.
But wait. Maggie who?
Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a former slave, was a black entrepreneur and civil rights activist who achieved business success at about the same time as the more well-known Vanderbilts, Carnegies and other Northern captains of industry were making their names. She was a respected resident of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood during the early 20th century, when the area was experiencing its heyday.
Yes, Virginia, there is a side of Richmond known as the cradle of black capitalism, despite the fact that just a few decades earlier, during the Civil War, the city had served as the capital of the Confederacy.
During Black History Month, Richmond celebrates its black heritage in a number of venues, from the Black History Museum to the elegant Gilded Age Maymont Mansion. But there’s nothing quite like visiting Jackson Ward. Enter this not-yet-gentrified district about 14 blocks northwest of the state Capitol and you step back into a time when the thriving black community was abuzz with energy and residents frequented more than 100 black-owned theaters, insurance companies, churches, hospitals, shops and other establishments.
What brought my visit to life, along with a tour of Walker’s two-story “urban mansion,” was the walking tour of 12 historic sites that described the doctors, journalists, business people, ministers and others who once resided here, few of whom I was familiar with.
I started at Walker’s Victorian house on East Leigh Street, which retains more than 90 percent of the family’s original furnishings and belongings, an astonishingly high percentage for historic homes, said Ben Anderson, a park ranger who led me through the site. Because members of the Walker family lived in the house until they turned it over to the National Park Service in 1979, little has been lost or destroyed.
Halfway into the tour, I was joined by a family of four. Upon coming to a room in the back of the house, the mother expressed dismay at the buckets, washboard and clothes-wringer displayed there and turned to her young girls. “Can you imagine having to do that?” she asked. Indeed. Doing a family’s laundry was so arduous that it could take a week. People with money paid someone to do it for them. Walker had one of several relatives living with her do the job.
Upstairs, one of the girls lagged behind at a roped-off bedroom, intrigued by dolls in fancy dresses arrayed on a twin bed, some with white faces, others with black. Walker’s granddaughter had owned a “Tu-In-One” doll, a Siamese-twin-like doll with a head on either end, instead of feet. It becomes a white doll with a bonnet or a black doll with her hair tied up in a red cloth depending upon which head the dress covers.
Walker clearly was an astute businesswoman. As a short film at the visitor center explains, she was the first black woman in the United States to own a bank: the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, chartered in 1903. She also started a newspaper and opened an emporium selling clothing and other goods to the black community, all more than a decade before women could vote. A photo of 16 of the bank’s employees that first year shows eight black women in long skirts and high-necked blouses.
Those women wouldn’t otherwise have had decent job prospects. “The idea of working at a bank, having those job skills, simply did not exist before Mrs. Walker came along,” Anderson said. “She went out of her way to hire African American women.” It meant that these women could escape the drudgery of working at one of the three main occupations available to black women at the time: laundress, domestic servant or tobacco factory worker.
Walker was a contemporary of such political and civil rights leaders as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune. Some were friends; others served with her on the boards of various organizations.
The early 20th-century times came alive even more during my walking tour of the ward, now a National Historic Landmark district. The Park Service lends visitors an iPod with narration interspersed with original music from the era, scratchy vinyl sounds and all. I felt as though I’d landed in a 3-D version of a Ken Burns documentary.
My first stop was the Hippodrome Theater, opened in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie theater. It stands next door to a 26-room mansion, built in 1905 by the Rev. W.L. Taylor, a leader of the United Order of True Reformers, a temperance organization that was one of the largest black fraternal and business enterprises in the United States.
On a bitingly cold day, I visited banks and insurance buildings, a church, a funeral establishment and the homes of other residents, whose names I hadn’t known but whose stories I learned, shedding more light on Walker’s contemporaries.
And then, a surprise. Say “Mr. Bojangles” and I think of a song about a man who danced, and whose dog up and died. That’s all I knew until I came upon a statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (born Luther Robinson) and heard the narration about the Richmond-born vaudevillian and tap dancer who starred in more than a dozen films, including several with child star Shirley Temple. Live and learn.
I started the tour disappointed that the original bank building and the department store that Walker had founded no longer exist. But the narrated tour of other landmarks gave me a good flavor of the era and a deeper understanding of it.
On previous visits to Richmond, I’d been to the grand Monument Avenue area and to trendy Shockoe Bottom’s shops and restaurants. But until this visit, I hadn’t walked a mile north to Jackson Ward, nor a mile in the shoes of some remarkable achievers who proved how much the human spirit can overcome.
Photo: Ellen Perlman. Maggie Walkers house in Richmond, Va.
[This story original ran in The Washington Post in 2012. I wrote a post about the trip on my blog.]
Okay, there are only two days left in black history month, but I consider this under the wire. Don't you? (thank you leap year for giving me an extra day)