1864 - 1934

A Woman of Fine Presence: Maggie L. Walker's Style

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, National Park Service

As a civil rights activist and pioneering entrepreneur, Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) devoted herself to uplifting the African American community in Richmond, VA and in the nation at large. Mrs. Walker often highlighted her own success, inspiring other African Americans, especially women, to achieve their potential amidst the daunting oppression of Jim Crow America. Through portraits and possessions, this exhibit spotlights Walker's model of sophistication, poise, and pride.

“Mrs. Walker is a woman of fine presence and an able speaker. She neither wastes nor minces words and is quite convincing in her discourse." - The Washington Bee, 1911

Well-dressed and meticulously groomed at all times, Mrs. Walker was the essence of a successful professional. Her many portraits showcase a variety of contemporary hairstyles, dashing dresses, and fashionable hats.

Maggie L. Walker accessorized with an array of jewelry including a favorite gold cross and strands of pearls.

“An attractive presence, A magnetic personality.” - The Appeal, 1908

Painting of Maggie Lena Walker, circa 1901

“Mrs. Walker...has a most searching and dancing pair of hazel eyes, and those with whom she comes in contact are immediately impressed with her striking beauty and tact of business." - The Colored American Newspaper 1903

“The Negro woman of to-day, despite the degradation and the mire through which she has come, is under God, moving to the front.”Maggie L. Walker, 1906

Maggie Walker's dress with ceremonial sash

In addition to her personal appearance, Maggie L. Walker's home and furnishings reflected her status as an inspirational public figure.

Seated in the middle of “Quality Row” - an affluent stretch of Richmond's African American Jackson Ward neighborhood - her family townhouse welcomed visitors of all walks of life.

Mrs. Walker modernized her home with electricity, indoor plumbing, and steam heat, and decorated it with contemporary and classical furniture styles.

The home was a testament to Walker's success story: the daughter of a former slave who rose to prominence on the national landscape.

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth but with a clothes basket almost upon my head. I have come up on the rough side of the mountain.” - Maggie L. Walker, 1907

The Independent Order of St. Luke Matrons presented Mrs. Walker with this elegant silver-plated tea set. It carries an inscription that reads "Matrons of Richmond/I-O-St. Luke -- /to Maggie Walker"

Ebonized mantle clock

Art nouveau epergne

Many of the furniture pieces in Walker's home feature claw feet or other details invoking the strength and prowess of animals. Allusions to lions, eagles, and bears are frequently used.

Late Renaissance Revival settee upholstered in black leather

Clawfoot settee

All of the china in the Walker dining room features a repeating rose-petal motif. These Austrian-made dishes were used for formal occasions such as Sunday dinners, holiday meals, and for entertaining distinguished guests.

German silver sugar bowl

Japanese Satsuma vases

Even while battling diabetes, Walker never abandoned her commitment to herself and to her community. She continued to set an example of strength in the face of hardship.

In the months before her death, the Independent Order of St. Luke generated hundreds of these plaster busts, using Walker's likeness for fundraising and memorializing.

Studio portrait by Addison Scurlock, Washington DC

Long after her death, Maggie Walker continues to inspire today. Her image of success in the face of hardship is one of her most enduring legacies.

Credits: Story

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

Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith

Photographer: Harpers Ferry Center Digital Imaging Project

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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