1903 - 1934

The St. Luke Hall: A Beacon of Black Business

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, National Park Service

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.

Maggie Lena Walker, leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke, circa 1905.

A Strong Foundation
"A trip to Richmond and a failure to visit the St. Luke Hall...would be like going to Washington D.C...and not seeing the Capitol." - Washington Bee, June 27, 1914 

"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

Inside the Hall
With roots as a mutual aid burial society, the Independent Order of St. Luke evolved into a successful insurance agency, offering competitive policies that provided death claims and sick benefits to African Americans denied these services elsewhere.The IOSL produced all of its promotional literature in the St. Luke Hall's printing department. "The St. Luke Herald" trumpeted the Order's success and also championed civil rights activism with its social editorials.To staff these offices, Maggie Walker primarily hired African American women. She knew that while the race as a whole was suffering, it was black women who were doubly oppressed.

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

Office plaque featuring Walker's name and rank: Right Worthy Grand Council Secretary Treasurer, Independent Order of St. Luke

Walker's desk (after she customized it to fit her wheelchair)

Walker's 1918-1922 diary illustrates just how much time she spent in her office

Embossing seal with Right Worthy Grand Council, IOSL logo

Name plate of Maggie Walker's successor (and daughter-in-law) Hattie N. F. Walker

Walker and the IOSL published the St. Luke Herald from the St. Luke Hall.

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

Thousands of insurance policies were processed by St. Luke clerks

A typical worksheet dilneates dues and benefits

Wheels of Progress
"The wheel of progress, intelligence, and invention is steadily rolling in the land of darkness and ignorance, and in the dawn of the 20th century, the man or woman who has brains and uses them is the man or woman who succeeds." - Maggie Lena Walker, 1909

Maggie Walker insisted on the latest technology for her office staff. This circa 1905 Burroughs Adding Machine was the workhorse of St. Luke accountants

A St. Luke accountant operating the Burroughs Adding Machine

Pitney-Bowes Model A Metered Mailing Machine, circa 1921

"Many thousands of dollars have been put into the equipment... The metered mailing machine sometimes registers as high as two thousand letters a day.” - Mary White Ovington, “Portraits In Color,” 1927

Graphotype used to emboss address plates

Embossed address plates hold the name and address of individual St. Luke members. These were loaded into an Address-O-Graph machine to facilitate mass-mailing. With St. Luke members spread across half the country, mailings were essential for communication and outreach.

Badges of Honor
Ceremonial regalia was unique to different fraternal orders. IOSL staff proudly made their own in the St. Luke Hall's Regalia Department.
Ceremonial Space
In addition to serving as office headquarters for the Right Worthy Grand Council, the St. Luke Hall held assembly rooms where other “subordinate” councils of the IOSL could rent meeting space. Following the traditions of old secret societies, St. Luke gatherings were steeped in ceremony and ritual.

Maggie Walker's dress and ceremonial sash

A Point of Pride
Throughout all of its incarnations, the St. Luke Hall was a major point of pride for Maggie L. Walker and the Independent Order of St. Luke. The building served as a backdrop for official photos and images of the Hall often adorned IOSL promotional material. In an era defined by limitations, the African American community at large recognized the St. Luke Hall as a monument to the success of black business and the triumph of a visionary leader.

Maggie L. Walker poses with "neighborhood boys" in front of St. Luke Hall, circa 1917

Maggie Walker with office staff in front of St. Luke Hall, circa 1917

St. Luke Boosters, circa 1922

St. Luke Cadets, assembled on 900 St. James Street, circa 1926

Recruitment brochure

Recruitment brochure touting the IOSL and the St. Luke Hall

1925 calendar made by the IOSL's Printing Department

Detail from the month of February, 1925 IOSL calendar

Though their visionary leader passed away in 1934, the Independent Order of St. Luke continued its operations for another 50 years.

The St. Luke Hall is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and while currently empty, continues to stand as a monument to black business.

Credits: Story

Curator: Ethan P. Bullard, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Photographer: Carol Highsmith

Photographers: Harpers Ferry Center

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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