Interpreting the Life and Times of Maggie Walker

By Lucy Marks ’19

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. 

As a part of my orientation as an intern at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, I was told that 90% of visitors who come into the site have a very limited knowledge of who Maggie L. Walker was and what she had accomplished in her 70 years of life. Equipped with that information I felt a heightened sense of responsibility for the overall quality and accuracy of my tour of her home. In my opinion, Mrs. Walker is one of the most extraordinary people in history, a big claim to make, but this claim speaks for itself even in the smallest of details within her home. Mrs. Walker once fell down the stairs and broken her kneecap, a very painful injury with a drawn-out healing process. To prevent future injury, she had a skylight added to the stairwell to illuminate the staircase for safer travel. While this is a comparatively small change to her home, I think it speaks volumes about who she is and how she addressed obstacles in her life. Mrs. Walker lived in Richmond, Virginia during the height of the Jim Crow era. Mrs. Walker faced laws and restrictions that limited her not only as an African American, but as a woman. She didn’t just fight these laws; rather she sought creative solutions to benefit herself and others. Continue reading “Interpreting the Life and Times of Maggie Walker”

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. Continue reading “Interpreting Race and Gender at Maggie L. Walker NHS”