On one of the most frigid days of February this year I took a visiting professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond on a motor tour of downtown Richmond. The weather restricted us from walking the streets but we did visit one site. It was like walking in history.
We visited the home of Maggie Lena Walker, the remarkable African American woman who, among other accomplishments, started a bank in 1903 to help empower her people.
The house and adjacent buildings used for a visitors’ center and exhibit hall are operated by the National Park Service and the site is located at 600 N. Second Street in the heart of Jackson Ward in Richmond. Our tour was led by a young intern who kept the prepared script tightly in his hands. He was courteous and eager.
Maggie Walker moved into the brick townhouse in 1905 and a visit is indeed taking steps back in time. The period furnishings belonged to Walker – the decorative items, the furniture, the glassware, and the cases full of books in her library.
The walls of the library are covered with pictures of notable African Americans including many who visited in the home. Some of her contemporaries include W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs.
I spotted at least two likenesses of Miss Burroughs. A personal friend of Maggie Walker, Nannie Helen Burroughs – also a native Virginian and a Baptist and a prominent educator with her own school in the District of Columbia – became a link between the influential woman banker and Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia. In the 1930s when Virginia WMU was ready and willing to establish a relationship between white and black missions-minded Baptist women, Miss Burroughs became a speaker at Virginia WMU meetings. She and the executive secretary of the WMU, Blanche Sydnor White, forged a friendship.
In 1934 WMU of Virginia appointed a bi-racial committee to seek cooperation. Eighty years later it seems such an obvious mission but in the Thirties it was bold. The committee’s noble purposes were: “1. That the Baptist women of Virginia may know each other; 2. That colored and white Baptist women stand solidly for interracial justice, good will and cooperation and against any effort to create discord between the races; and 3. To share with each other our experiences, our leadership, our literature, our tried and true methods.”
Among the plans was the securing of “a full-time Negro Field Missionary.” The committee was having difficulty finding the right person for this key position. One day the committee met on the campus of Virginia Union University in Richmond at the home of a committee member, Mrs. W.J. Clark, wife of the president of the University. Some felt that maybe the committee should “give up” the idea of an interracial program. And then someone suggested that the committee consult with Mrs. Walker.
By 1934 Maggie Walker was an invalid who had been confined to a wheelchair for the last six years. She had installed a rope-pulled elevator which her chauffeur used to bring her upstairs in her wheelchair. She agreed to meet with members of the interracial committee but it would have to be in the upstairs bedroom of her home. It would be an intimate setting for a meeting between white and black women of the times.
Maggie Lena Walker was a “devoted member” of First African Baptist Church of Richmond and among those committee members was Blanche White, the historian of First Baptist Church of Richmond. The two churches had common roots; but at the time their memberships were strictly along racial lines.
By the time my guided tour of the Walker House had reached the upstairs bedroom I became flooded with the acquired memories which a historian stores away in the mind. I entered the bedroom still adorned with the furnishings of so long ago. There was the wheelchair. Across from the large four-poster bed was a picture which must have had special meaning to the former occupant of the room. It was an artist’s conception of Jesus gathering little children about him.
From the privilege of my history books, I remembered the story. The white women on that visit in 1934 outlined the committee’s plans, listed the problems and even shared their discouragements. Blanche White captured the moment: “The weary, gallant stateswoman put out her hand and took the hand of the discouraged visitor. ‘Don’t surrender,’ she said, ‘This is a grand and noble work you have started. God is in it and He will guide you. Not one of your applicants you have mentioned seems to me to be the one you should elect. God has for you somewhere the woman He wants you to find. Keep searching and I will help you.’”
Standing in that bedroom on that cold day, I could picture those white women who had climbed the steep and narrow stairs and had sought the counsel of this wise black woman. It was a story which I had found in the old history books at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. It was a mere sidelight in the larger story that was Mrs. Walker and, therefore, it would not have been in the guide’s script.
But it was an important story within the history of Baptists in Virginia. It signified a coming together of blacks and whites, fellow Baptist Christians, for mutual respect and cooperation. It was a new beginning.
Within a few days of that meeting with Mrs. Walker, the president of Virginia Union offered the name of a woman who had education and practical training to become the Interracial Missionary of Virginia WMU. The woman was Fletcher Mae Howell and she began the pioneering work.
Later that same year, Maggie Walker was the guest of Virginia WMU at its annual meeting. The church was packed with white Baptist women wearing their best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and hats. Nannie Burroughs was the featured speaker for the occasion; and at just the right moment Maggie Walker was wheeled into the church sanctuary and presented by the WMU president to the body as the person who had advised the leadership not to give up. Mrs. Walker died on December 15, 1934.
Eighty years later, in February 2014, Valerie Carter was elected as the first African American to lead Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia. For her installation, “the Union” met at her church, Mount Tabor Baptist Church, a historic African American congregation in Richmond. To those who were present that day it was another opportunity for walking in history.