Locals in their hundreds assembled in downtown Richmond, Va., last Saturday, July 15, to witness the unveiling of a statue honoring the nation’s first African-American woman to charter a bank — a black woman named Maggie Lena Walker.
Acclaimed Maryland sculptor Antonio “Toby” Mendez threw back the cover on his work to reveal a glossy, 10-foot-tall bronze statue of Walker’s likeness. The entrepreneur towered above the crowd with her glasses pinned to her lapel and a checkbook in her left hand.
“She’s ready to work,” Mendez, who’s known for his artwork honoring civil rights figures, told The Washington Post. “She wasn’t just raising the bar for her community — she was working to create opportunities.”
The daughter of a slave, Walker was a beloved teacher, humanitarian and businesswoman who made inroads for Black Americans and women during a time of oppression and racial segregation. Her successes have never been honored, but the large effigy now situated at the heart of the Confederacy’s former capital will serve as a reminder of all she achieved.
Community leaders have wanted to honor Walker for decades, The Washington Post reported, as she was the first woman of any race to charter a bank.
After publishing a newspaper for the Independent Order of St. Luke fraternal society in 1902, Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which granted loans to Black entrepreneurs and residents at a fair rate. The bank then recycled the interest earned to continue helping the community, according to the newspaper.
“Let us put our money together,” Walker was quoted as saying. “Let us use our money; let us put our money out as usury among ourselves and reap the benefit ourselves. Let’s have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”
After a series of mergers in 1930, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was renamed Consolidated Bank & Trust, of which Walker became board chairwoman. The institution was the nation’s oldest Black-owned bank in continuous operation, but lost that title after it was acquired by Abigail Adams National Bancorp in 2005, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
But now, more than 80 years after her death, Walker is finally being recognized, and her admirers couldn’t be happier.
“Children and adults alike need to see the missing pieces of history,” said Gary Flowers, a local resident who helped spearhead the effort to honor Walker. “We’re honored to see Mrs. Walker in her full glory.”
Still, Flowers and other community activists expressed concern about the city’s other statues honoring Confederate leaders.
The Washington Post reported that rather than remove the contested monuments, as was done in New Orleans, Mayor Levar Stoney is working to add new ones honoring those who challenged slavery while adding context to statues celebrating figures like Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“I think it really becomes a math equation,” Flowers told the paper. “For equal display of honor, we must add statues of African-Americans who have been left out of the history books.”