Written and photographed by Danny Holcomb
A brochure published by the Historic Jackson Ward Association describes that part of Richmond as “The Birthplace of Black Capitalism.” After the Civil War, Virginia had the largest African slave population and the largest population of free blacks in the U.S., setting the stage for pioneering black entrepreneurs to prosper in “the Ward.” By the early 20th century, black-owned banks, insurance companies, newspapers and entertainment venues flourished in Jackson Ward alongside entrepreneurial African American merchants, barbers, beauticians, and restaurateurs. The first floor of The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, 00 Clay St., is dedicated to the history of Jackson Ward, and features a permanent exhibit, Banks, Boutiques and “the Deuce.” It tells the story of German and Irish immigrants living alongside free blacks, forging a city within a city. Prevailing attitudes forced these populations to do for themselves, or go without. With gusto, they chose to do for themselves, and the Ward grew to buzz and bustle with innovative business and entrepreneurship.
However, with desegregation and the repeal of Jim Crow laws in the last half of the 20th Century, many black-owned businesses that had previously thrived faced new competition with businesses that were often better financed. Nevertheless, some businesses outshone the initial hopes of the black entrepreneurs who originated them.
From Pennies to Millions
No discussion of the history of black-owned business in Virginia can take place without acknowledging the contributions of Maggie Lena Walker. She was the pivotal figure in Richmond’s economic history during the era Jackson Ward was dubbed “the Black Wall Street.” She was the first woman to establish a bank in the U.S. She was also a civic leader, newspaper publisher, department store owner, head of an insurance company, and presided over the black fraternal organization, Independent Order of St. Luke.
Born in 1867 to a freed slave and a white abolitionist father, Walker faced immeasurable hardships in post-Reconstruction Virginia, but she persevered when many others would have given up. When Maggie was a child, her mother, Elizabeth Draper, married a former slave named William Mitchell, who helped raise Maggie as his own. William was Head Waiter at an upscale Richmond hotel, considered an excellent job for a former slave in Richmond at the time. But when Maggie was nine, he was found drowned in the James River, the apparent victim of a robbery turned to murder. The family was forced to support themselves doing laundry around the Capital City.
Walker managed to stay in school while collecting and delivering laundry. When she was fourteen, she joined a benevolent organization called The Daughters of St. Luke that provided health benefits to its members. It was later re-named “the Order of St. Luke” when men were invited to join. In 1899, the Independent Order asked Maggie to preside over their affairs. They were struggling and about to succumb to financial ruin. Maggie was successful in pulling them back to solvency. In 1903, she chartered St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank in her capacity as the Order’s “Right Worthy Grand Secretary and Treasurer.” From 1929 through the following year, St. Luke’s acquired several other black banks and became Consolidated Bank & Trust. According to the National Park Service, who operates Maggie’s former home as a National Historic Site, Consolidated Bank and Trust today is “the oldest continually African American-operated bank in the United States.”
Expanding Focus, Strengthened by Heritage
According to their Mission Statement, the Bank & Trust’s goal is “to nurture our community.” That credo remains loyal to Maggie Walker’s aim, “to develop and prosper the people it was founded to serve.” But current bank president, Joseph L. Williams, points out that Consolidated has a wider mission. “I believe what I was taught, that if this country is to reach its full potential,” Williams says, “it has to embrace and value all of its citizens.”
In 2004, Consolidated came under federal scrutiny for having insufficient capital to operate properly, and for unprofitable loan practices. The bank lost its distinction as the oldest continually owned African American bank in the U.S. when it was acquired in a 2005 merger by Abigail Adams National Bancorp, Inc. a holding company that operates The Adams National Bank, a federally-chartered minority bank with seven offices in D.C. and Maryland.
Chairwoman of Abigail Adams, Jeanne Delaney Hubbard, was quoted in a press release saying, “To combine this legacy with Adams’s focus on serving minorities, small businesses and not-for-profit organizations is a rare opportunity, allowing us not only to make a strong strategic acquisition for our shareholders in expanding our footprint, but also a significant social statement by maintaining the heritage and expanding the focus of Consolidated.”
Expanding focus while drawing strength from a rich heritage could describe one achievement of Jackson Ward over the past century. The Ward was a unique setting that allowed black enterprise to flourish at a time when African Americans faced formidable blocks to success. Its climactic era, as well as the legacy of Maggie L. Walker, lives on in the African American business community of Richmond.