This blog post was written by NMSC’s archives technician, Sandra! Sandra has a joint degree in Archeology and Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School. She has been working in the archives department at NMSC for about 2 years. Her work has included digital archives projects for Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and Women’s Rights National Historical Park as well as processing archives for Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River and Lowell National Historical Park. Sandra’s interests include care of museum collections and improved access to collections through digital projects.
This week we celebrate the birthday of an important African American woman whose life signifies perseverance, success, and love of community. That woman is Maggie Lena Walker, businesswoman, community organizer, and civil rights activist.
Over the past two years, as an Archives Technician at the Northeast Museum Services Center, I have had the honor of working on a digital archives project for Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site located in Richmond, Virginia. The project involved creating metadata for a collection of Maggie L. Walker’s documents and photographs. Once the project is complete, the collection of documents and photographs will be available online for the general public and academic researchers to access.
Maggie L. Walker’s archives reflect many aspects of her life including her tireless work to improve the lives of African American people and her success as the first African American woman to found a bank. Her success in business allowed her the stature and financial means to make real change in her community.
Working with her archives, I was able to see snapshots of the work she did and the causes that she fought for. Last week, I was reminded of some of these documents while watching a ranger talk from Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site by Ben Anderson entitled “Maggie L. Walker: A Catalyst for Change.” Ranger Anderson talked about the different ways that Maggie L. Walker was an activist for change in her community. He pointed out that she worked on such issues as fighting for African American women’s right to vote and to end racial segregation. His talk brought to mind several specific documents and photographs from her archives that illustrate Maggie L. Walker as an activist. Below are a few examples of those items.
Maggie L. Walker was a member of many organizations that were working to improve the civil rights of African American people in the United States in the early 20th Century. In the collection of documents that I worked on there were many publications and other documents recording the work of these organizations and Maggie L. Walker’s involvement with that work.
For example, in November 1926 she donated money to the NAACP and received a certificate that recorded her contribution. The certificate lists the organization’s mission as being “To Safeguard the Full Potential, Civil and Legal Rights of Colored Citizens and Secure them Equality and Opportunity.”
The collection also includes brochures and pamphlets that Maggie L. Walker may have used to educate herself and others. These publications documented the inequality suffered by African Americans during her lifetime and actions that could be taken to make a change. For example, lynchings were taking place all across the United States, especially in the Southeast. A pamphlet from the Commission on Interracial Cooperation records the statistics of lynchings while calling for an end to this disturbing trend in the United States. The pamphlet recommends steps that can be taken to help eradicate lynchings and even records some progress that had already been made in some states.
Maggie L. Walker’s activism also included supporting and inspiring her community. She was very interested in working with African American youth to help them achieve successful futures despite the obstacles they faced due to racial injustice. The below photograph from the collection of Maggie L. Walker with a group of neighborhood boys seems to illustrate her love of children as well as her stature in the community.
Walker contributed financial donations, food, and her time to schools for African American girls. This can be observed in her documents in the form of donation receipts including one made to the National Training School for Women and Girls in Lincoln Heights, DC. The money was for a student prize for the ‘Best advanced student business.’
She was also on the Board of Managers for the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls. A letter in her archives from the school superintendent illustrates that Maggie L. Walker was loved and respected at the school by the staff and students for the work she did to assist them. The letter reads, “We all missed you so much at our annual exercises. It did not seem complete without you. The girls looked for you until it was over…” The letter also requests that she make an impromptu speech about interracial cooperation at an upcoming event.
Maggie L. Walker was well known for her public addresses. She spoke eloquently on a number of subjects that were important to her. Her fight for civil rights and equal opportunity for women were a theme in many of her speeches. Her public addresses can be found in her collection of documents since they were carefully typed up and, in one case, bound into a book.
My favorite Maggie L. Walker public addresses are those in which she expressed her activism both for racial justice and women’s rights. For example, in her public address titled “Race Unity” she calls for all African Americans to shop at and use African American owned businesses as a way to support their community. An excerpt from ‘Race Unity’ reads “..when we realize our family, the Negro Race, is spending more than a quarter of a million of dollars every week in these twin cities, and spending that money with a family which will not recognize us as citizens, will not employ our fathers nor our mothers, will not give out sisters or brothers the slightest chance to be benefited by this stream of living water, which we continually furnish daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and that without ceasing, we are going to see if we can try and turn the course of that almighty stream of dollar..” This idea of patronizing African American businesses as a way to work towards racial equality lives on today in the ‘Buy Black’ movement.
Another common theme in Maggie L. Walker’s public addresses was African American women’s equality and rights. In her address titled, “Women in the Business World” she encourages African American women to pursue varied careers by saying, “What women of other nationalities can do, we can do. The fact that we are at the very bottom of the ladder should not dishearten us. Faith in God and faith in ourselves can work miracles…” She not only talked about women’s careers, she also employed many African American women in her businesses and at the Independent Order of St. Luke, a Fraternal organization that she led for many years.
Maggie L. Walker also fought for access to voting for African Americans in her community. In her archives are typed notes, possibly for a public address, that spell out the hoops that people had to jump through to register to vote in 1917. It appears that she was using this information to educate African American men to ensure that they knew how to register. She notes that literacy had been added as a requirement to register to vote by 1917. This was in addition to other requirements including a poll tax and property ownership. These hurdles must have discouraged many people from even trying to register to vote or made it outright impossible for others. It is clear why people fought so hard to change voting laws since at that time the requirements disenfranchised so many people. Maggie L. Walker was not able to change these laws in 1917, but she was able to educate people on the voting laws to ensure that as many people as possible from her community could register to vote.
The above notes on how to register to vote were from three years before women were given the right to vote. Maggie L. Walker’s diary for September 11, 1920 records that she paid her poll tax and registered for the first time in her life. Throughout the September 1920 entries in her diary she mentions that she was working with people to ensure that African American women registered to vote. For example, on September 20th she wrote “Visits City Hall – makes plea for additional help to register colored women.”
She clearly worked tirelessly to ensure that as many African American women as possible were registered and able to take part in the historic first vote for women in November 1920. Her diary reflects that important day in history. She wrote “Election Day – Holiday. 1st voting day for Women.”
Maggie L. Walker’s archives are vital documentation of the work she did for the civil rights movement in the early 1900s. They are important for understanding how long and how difficult the fight for equal rights for African Americans has been in the United States. Maggie L. Walker was one of the women in history who fought that fight and her archives will ensure that her civil rights work is not forgotten.
The project to make the MAWA archives accessible online is funded through the NPS Civil Rights Initiative. In addition to competitive grants for non-NPS sites, the initiative supports NPS cultural resource and education projects to document, interpret, and preserve the stories and sites of the Civil Rights Movement.