In Her Footsteps: A Virtual Tour of Maggie L. Walker's Home

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, National Park Service

From 1905 until her death in 1934, Maggie L. Walker lived at 110 1/2 E. Leigh Street in Jackson Ward - Richmond, Virginia's premier African American neighborhood. Today her house is a furnished museum operated by the National Park Service. Come inside to take a walk through the past. 

Born into poverty in 1864, pioneering entrepreneur and civil rights activist Maggie Lena Walker reached national prominence in 1903 as the nation's first African American female bank president. In addition to her practices of economic empowerment, she emphasized education, civic engagement, and gender equality as the path towards racial justice during the Jim Crow era.

In 1904, the year after launching her St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, Maggie Walker purchased a Victorian town house in the heart of Richmond's vibrant African American neighborhood, Jackson Ward. Maggie Walker moved into the home a year later with her husband, Armstead Walker, Jr., her mother, two sons, and adopted daughter.

The home was built in 1883 and prior to Walker, had been owned by two different African American doctors including Dr. Robert Jones (at left, in carriage).


Over the years Walker expanded the house to accommodate her growing family.In 1922 Walker added a columned porch and balcony (right) giving the house the stately appearance seen today.

Maggie Walker's employees presented her with this Art Nouveau electric lamp. Walker installed it in her foyer as a showcase of both style and modern technology.

Mrs. Walker’s visitors received a warm and impressive welcome upon stepping into her home. Their view in the foyer would have not only included the newel post lamp but entrance ways into the three most lavishly decorated and public rooms of the house: the parlors, library, and dining room.

Mrs. Walker strove to make her success visible as a means to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. In her parlors, Walker went for a big first impression, surrounding her guests with some of the most opulent decorations she could afford.

As Maggie Walker began to suffer from diabetes in her older age, she had a special wheelchair constructed to assist her mobility. The custom designed chair also featured a detachable writing desk.

Determined to maintain her countless leadership responsibilities, Mrs. Walker continued to write letters, sign checks, and draft speeches from the comfort of what she called her "rolling chair."

The rear parlor was used as both entertainment space for the public and performance space for the family. Though not a musician herself, Mrs. Walker's daughters-in-law and grandchildren were talented singers, violinists, and piano players.

Visitors to the library were surrounded by numerous books, diplomas, and portraits of Walker’s accomplished African American contemporaries. Together these objects conveyed that the Walkers were not just a wealthy family, but one that was both well-educated and well-connected.

Growing up during Reconstruction, Maggie Walker was among the first generation of African Americans in the South to attend public schools.

Walker graduated from Richmond Colored Normal School in 1883. Though she only taught school for three years, Walker remained an educator for life.

This poster of "101 Prominent Colored People" highlights accomplished African American educators, faith leaders, business people, artists, scientists, and humanitarians. It is arranged alphabetically, and Maggie Walker is number 94, next to her friend Booker T. Washington.

These four separate images were originally painted by Winold Reiss as illustrations for Alain Locke's 1925 anthology "The New Negro" - a hallmark of the Harlem Renaissance. (L to R) Roland Hayes, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Robert Russa Moton, and Dr. W. E. B. DuBois.

In 1931, Mrs. Walker attended a banquet in honor of James Weldon Johnson: lawyer, writer, activist, and the composer of the black national anthem. Walker is seated in her custom-built wheelchair just left of the center of the room. Her son, Melvin, rests his hand on the back of Walker's chair.

The Walkers often reserved the dining room for special occasions such as parties and formal dinners. Maggie Walker’s distinguished guests would have been impressed by her array of fine crystal, silver, and china as well as the room’s stamped-tin ceiling.

All of the china in the Walker dining room features a repeating rose-petal motif. Roses were Mrs. Walker's favorite flowers and appear in other designs in her home such as wallpaper. These Austrian-made dishes were used for formal occasions such as Sunday dinners and holiday meals.

This silver sugar bowl holds twelve demitasse spoons, including a souvenir spoon from the Pan-American Exposition, the 1901 World's Fair held in Buffalo, New York.

Made by the extremely popular Ansonia Clock Company of New York, this mantle clock was known as the company's "Blackbird" model. The wooden frame has been "ebonized" - a chemical process that stains the wood a deep, opaque black color.

Walker’s descendants referred to this room as “Melvin’s Den” since it often served as leisure and entertainment space for Mrs. Walker’s youngest son. Originally an outdoor porch, Mrs. Walker had the den enclosed to accommodate her growing family which included 12 people spanning four generations.

This "Electrola" was an electric version of the Victrola hand-cranked record player. In addition to the turntable, it featured a radio built into the cabinet. The Walkers' 78 RPM record collection is comprised primarily of popular music and classical numbers.

This certificate was presented to Melvin Walker upon his admission to the Zeta chapter of Omega Psi Phi. Chartered at Howard University in 1911, Omega Psi Phi is one of the nation's oldest African American collegiate fraternities.

The family typically ate their day-to-day meals here in the kitchen. Their cook, Polly Payne, had been adopted by the Walkers as a young girl but was well-regarded as a family member. Polly used the the large, iron stove which is one of the oldest original pieces in the entire home.

Mrs. Walker completed a massive expansion to the rear of her home in 1922, which included three bedrooms and a laundry room. Remembering her mother's struggles as a washerwoman, Walker insisted on comfortable and modern conveniences for Polly including indoor plumbing, fans, and an electric press.

Essentially a large electric iron, this mangle press was used to smooth out wrinkles from linens such as tablecloths and bed sheets. With as many as 12 family members in the Walker household, one can imagine this press in near constant use.

The desktop fan was the world’s first household appliance to run on electric power. In addition to cooling, fans could be used to assist with drying laundry.

Originally designed as a bedroom for Polly and her husband, Maurice, this room was left empty in the mid-1920s when Polly moved upstairs. When Maggie Walker began to rely on her wheelchair for mobility, she installed an elevator, allowing her to maintain her master bedroom on the second floor.

Two of Mrs. Walker’s granddaughters used this room as a bedroom before it was converted to a storage room in the late 1920s, becoming the landing for Mrs. Walker’s elevator. Once lifted to this room, Mrs. Walker had to make her way to the opposite end of the house to reach her master bedroom.

Maggie Walker's safe secured her personal valuables - at least those not safeguarded in the bank she founded.

When the National Park Service acquired the Walker home in 1979, it was within this safe that staff discovered Walker’s diaries which had been protected by her descendants for 45 years.

Melvin Walker and his wife, Ethel, enjoyed this spacious bedroom which was completed soon after their marriage. Adjacent to their daughters’ bedroom, and around the corner from a full bathroom, Melvin and his family had the entire rear wing of the second floor to themselves.

This hand-tinted photograph captures Maggie L. Walker's four grandchildren. From left to right they are Maggie Laura, Mamie Evelyn, Armstead, and Elizabeth. All four grandchildren spent the early years of their lives in their grandmother's home though Maggie Laura stayed until she moved off to medical school at the University of Michigan. It was Dr. Maggie Laura Walker Lewis who transferred the deed of her grandmother's home to the National Park Service in 1979.

Walker’s oldest son, Russell, and his wife, Hattie, shared this bedroom, which was situated next door to their mother. Though lacking in privacy, the room had access to the second story sun porch, and kept them only a few steps from their daughter, Maggie Laura, whose bedroom was just down the hall.

Maggie Walker’s mother, Elizabeth Mitchell, moved in with the family in 1905 and used this as her bedroom. Following her death in 1922, it was converted into a cozy sitting room and home office for Mrs. Walker, complete with a radio and several family portraits.

This hand-colored image depicts Maggie Walker's mother, Elizabeth Draper Mitchell. Born into slavery, she eventually worked as an assistant cook in the Richmond mansion of Elizabeth Van Lew, a noted abolitionist and Civil War spy. Walker's mother supported her two children by working as a laundress and later became a midwife. She lived with Walker at their Leigh Street home until she passed away in 1922.

Melvin (left; 1897-1935) and Russell (right; 1890-1923) were Mrs. Walker’s only two sons who lived into adulthood; a middle child, Armstead, died soon after he was born in 1894. Throughout their lives, both Melvin and Russell remained close by their mother’s side, living at home (even while raising families of their own) and working in various capacities for her bank, and fraternal organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke. Both boys died of illness while in their thirties but, thankfully, their wives and children continued on helping to preserve the home and setting the stage for the museum you see today.

Mrs. Walker helped vote President Roosevelt into office in 1932 and was even invited to his inaugural speech in 1933. Her support for Roosevelt, a Democrat, broke ranks with the majority of African American voters who continued to vote Republican. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 with just under 25% of the African American vote, a figure that was nearly tripled by the time he was re-elected in 1936. Since then, African American support for the Democratic party has been largely consistent which places Mrs. Walker on the cutting edge of a revolution that continues to affect our political landscape.

Ever since she joined First African Baptist Church, Maggie L. Walker's faith played a guiding role in shaping her leadership and her resilience. This analytical family bible claims to "make the Bible its own interpreter, furnishing the reader with the necessary helps for intelligent study."

From her spacious bedroom and balcony, Walker enjoyed a view of the neighborhood she helped build. When she passed away in her bed on December 15, 1934 she left behind a legacy of determination and compassion. Her example encourages followers to walk in her footsteps in the march towards progress.

We hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour of Maggie L. Walker's home. To learn more, visit the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, VA. Here you can watch a film on Mrs. Walker's life, view exhibits, and tour her home in person. The site is free and open Tuesday through Saturday. Call 804-771-2017 or visit www.nps.gov/mawa for more information.

Credits: Story

Benjamin Anderson, Park Guide
Ethan P. Bullard, Museum Curator
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Photography by Carol Highsmith, Google, and NPS Museum Management Program Digital Project at 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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