In 1899, Maggie L. Walker ascended to the top leadership position of the national African American fraternal organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL). Walker reinvigorated the IOSL, expanding its membership and developing the organization into an engine of economic uplift and civil rights advancement. She used her leadership to launch a bank, a newspaper, and a department store bringing employment and pride to people ravished by inequality. Walker ran her benevolent empire from Richmond's St. Luke Hall. This exhibit explores Walker's headquarters, its office force, and its impact.
"It was in this very building that I first felt the warmth and the never ending loyalty to the Order." - Maggie L. Walker
The national leadership body of the Independent Order of St. Luke was known as the Right Worthy Grand Council (RWGC). Based in Richmond, they first ran their headquarters out of their leader's home. Then from early 1898 until 1903, the RWGC operated out of the former home of Dr. George Bright (an ex-Confederate soldier) at 900 St. James Street in Richmond's premier African American neighborhood, Jackson Ward.
Maggie Walker pushed for a new construction to house her ambitions enterprises. During the spring and summer of 1903, contractors constructed the new building, stretching from 902-904 St. James Street. Upon completion, the St. Lukes demolished the Old St. Luke Hall (Bright's home) and immediately began looking ahead for even more expansions. It was from this new building that Walker famously opened her St. Luke Penny Savings Bank on November 2, 1903. Though it was completed in 1903, the year "1902" - the date of inception - was brandished on its cornice
Maggie L. Walker (front row, third from right) and IOSL office staff pose in front of the St. Luke Hall, shortly after opening her bank in 1903.
“The members of the St. Luke Organization are thoroughly aroused. We learn that the old building will be razed to the ground shortly and that an even more imposing structure than the one just erected will be built in its place.” Richmond Planet, July 11, 1903
Even when the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank moved out of the St. Luke Hall and into a new location in 1905, the St. Lukes were quickly outgrowing their three-story building.
In 1918, Virginia's first licensed African American architect, Charles T. Russell, designed the expansion of the St. Luke Hall.
The Tuskegee-educated Russell added a fourth floor with elevator service, and widened the building, constructing a new bay on the southern edge of the structure.
Detail from a promotional "church fan" showcasing the new building
“Most of the growth has been since 1899. It was then in a small frame building with the secretary's desk under the stairs and only one clerk. Today it occupies a hundred-thousand-dollar, four-story brick building, and has sixty clerks. It is quite a show place in Richmond." Mary White Ovington, “Portraits In Color,” 1927
Maggie Walker in her office on the top floor of the St. Luke Hall, circa 1910
“I found [Mrs. Walker] working like a beaver in St. Luke’s Hall... In the building working under her orders were some 30 young colored women clerks, bookkeepers, typewriters and stenographers. It was a novel and instructive sight….and the deeds that she has accomplished ought to afford encouragement and inspiration to every Negro in the land.”
Mrs. S.J.C. Ralph, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1908
Interior of the fourth floor of the St. Luke Hall
“There are not many offices anywhere more attractive than that on its upper floors, with windows on three sides, with all the latest desks, and filing cabinets, with great safes for the policies, and about everything the air of having been scrubbed that very morning. The clerks are nearly all women, all colored of course. They wear a white uniform which they don after they arrive in the morning. Order is everywhere evident and work moves with expedition." Mary White Ovington, “Portraits In Color,” 1927
Curator: Ethan P. Bullard, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Photographer: Carol Highsmith
Photographers: Harpers Ferry Center