Interpreting Race and Gender at Maggie L. Walker NHS

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Ashley Lookenhouse ‘17

The essence of Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is to show how Maggie L. Walker shattered gender, racial, and even societal norms and expectations. She was heavily involved in her community by working with the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal organization, for most of her life, and serving as the Right Worthy Grand Secretary-Treasurer of the organization for several years. She also founded a bank, being the first African American woman to do so, started a newspaper, ran a department store, and bought her house with her own money. Presenting a visitor with the fact that Mrs. Walker paid for her home – without the help of her husband who was employed – helps them realize that Maggie Walker was not just some woman who randomly has a National Historic Site dedicated to her.

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The house, and the neighborhood surrounding the house is used to discuss some of the typical gender norms of the era, such as married women not being able to be teacher and women being limited in the jobs they could hold due to their gender. Her story is long and impressive, ranging from her involvement with St. Luke on both a local and national level, her important work with other local and national organizations such as the NAACP that helped advance racial equality, her connections to other famous African Americans such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, how hard she worked to support her family and give them nice things, and her struggle with paralysis later in life and how she overcame it. As it grows before them, visitors begin to realize that she did incredible things – things they didn’t realize a woman could do in the early 20th century. However, when visitors see the house they aren’t directly seeing Mrs. Walker the banker or the businesswoman. They are seeing Mrs. Walker the grandmother, the caretaker, and the friend.

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There are many things a visitor can take away from this experience. The house could be seen as the woman’s sphere, but it’s important to remember that this house was her house. She was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the household. However, Maggie L. Walker was not confined to her home, as most people expect early 20th century women to be. At the same time, she was an extremely family-oriented woman. The extent of her family orientation was probably, in some way, influenced by the typical gender roles of the early 20th century, even though she, in many ways, did not conform to those ideals. She worked outside of the home a great deal and therefore did not raise her children as directly as most women of the period. Her youngest son, Melvin, recalled “I regard [Polly Payne] as I do my own mother as she practically reared me while my mother was constantly travelling, building up the St. Luke work during my infancy” (Marlowe, 143). This shows that although Mrs. Walker was family oriented, she was not tied to the house.

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By taking a tour of a historic house, like the ones available at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, visitors are able to conceptualize all of the people that lived in the home, the men and the women. Maggie L. Walker’s story is important because it allows the different aspects of life to be seen. The concept of gender, although addressed at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, is somewhat one-sided; we discuss how women interact with the outside world, but often do not mention how men interact with the house. This is something that could be expanded on in the future.


Sources:

Marlowe, Gertrude Woodruff. A Right Grand Worthy Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 2003.

Reid, Debra A. “Making Gender Matter: Interpreting Male and Female Roles in a Historic House Museum,” in Jessica Foy Donnelly, ed., Interpreting Historic House Museums (AltaMira, 2002): 81-110.

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