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African-American Business Owners in the Jim Crow Era

During the Jim Crow Era, many African-American men and women defied great odds and established their own businesses. Working in industries such as insurance and banking, sports, news publishing and beauty, these men and women developed strong business acumen that allowed them to not only build personal empires but also help African-American communities fight social and racial injustice. 

Businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker was a follower of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of cast down your bucket where you are, Walker was a lifelong resident of Richmond, working to bring change to African-Americans throughout Virginia.

Yet her achievements were so much bigger than a town in Virginia. 

In 1902, Walker founded the St. Luke Herald, an African-American newspaper serving the Richmond area.

And she did not stop there. Walker became the first American woman to establish and be appointed as a bank president when she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. By doing so, Walker became the first women in the United States to found a bank. The goal of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was to provide loans to members of the community.

By 1920 the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank had assisted members of the community purchase at least 600 houses. The success of the bank helped the Independent Order of St. Luke continue to grow. In 1924, it was reported that the order had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and estimated assets of at least $400,000.

During the Great Depression, St. Luke Penny Savings merged with two other banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker served as chairperson of the board.

Walker consistently inspired African-Americans to be hard working and self reliant. She even said, I am of the opinion [that] if we can catch the vision, in a few years we shall be able to enjoy the fruits from this effort and its attendant responsibilities, through untold benefits reaped by the youth of the race. More »

 Robert Sengstacke Abbott is a

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National Trust for Historic Preservation