“Women and Men who made a difference and are not well-known or remembered”
MAGGIE LENA WALKER
Maggie Walker was the first woman to found a bank in the United States. She also established the Saint Luke Emporium, a department store located in the Jackson Ward section of Richmond. Walker was a leader in the Richmond black community; she is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond.
Maggie Lena Mitchell (Walker) was born to Elizabeth Draper Mitchell, a former slave and a White man, Eccles Cuthbert. Early in her life, her mother married William Mitchell who was also a former slave. Her parents worked in the home of an abolitionist and after a few years of exemplary service, they were freed. Maggie’s stepfather (Mitchell) got a job as a “maitre d” at a prominent hotel and the family moved into a small house nearby.
At an early age, Maggie’s stepfather was killed and she had to help her mother do the laundry business in order to take care of her and her brother. Maggie Mitchell attended Lancaster School and then the Armstrong Normal School where she graduated in 1883. At age fourteen, she became a member of the Grand United Order of St. Luke, an African-American fraternal and cooperative insurance society that had been founded in 1867 by a former slave, Mary Prout, in Baltimore.
Maggie taught at her alma mater, the Lancaster School, until her marriage in 1886 to Armstead Walker, Jr., a building contractor. After having three sons, she went to work part time as an agent for an insurance company, the Women’s Union, while attending night school for bookkeeping. She also volunteered at St. Luke and eventually worked her way up in 1889, to become the executive secretary-treasurer of the renamed organization, the Independent Order of St. Luke.
Walker started publishing the St. Luke Herald in 1902 to publicize and promote the order. In 1903, she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and became its first president. She had often dreamed of turning “nickels into dollars” by pooling money and then lending it out at reasonable rates. Hers was a dream fulfilled for she reasoned if Black people put their money together and “loan it out among ourselves, then the interest will be ours.” And it worked. She earned the recognition of being the first women to charter a bank in the United States.
The bank severed relations with St. Luke fraternal order and then merged with two other Black banks to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. She became the chairwoman of the board. Walker supported many charities and organization that worked to better the quality of life of Black people such as the Urban League, the Virginia Interracial Committee and the NAACP.
In 1904, she bought a house consisting of nine rooms and eventually expanded it to 22 rooms, installing central heating and electricity. Her son, Russell, accidentally shot and killed her husband, his father in 1915, and thereafter he suffered long bouts of depression; he died in 1923. Her mother and her (Walker’s) son both lived with her. There were other tragedies in her life from which she never fully recovered. Walker fell and injured her kneecap in 1907 causing her to use a wheel chair, and in addition she also suffered from diabetes. She had to install an elevator in her house for her convenience and had her car adjusted to accommodate her wheel chair.
She died in her Richmond, Virginia home on East Leigh Street that has since become the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. It still contains the original furnishings. The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company is still in existence today, and is the oldest continuously operating Black bank in the U. S. Maggie L. Walker died in 1934.
EDITH SPURLOCK SAMPSON
Edith Spurlock was born to Louis and Elizabeth Spurlock in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on/about October 13, 1898/1901. (There is a discrepancy about the correct year of her birth). She was one of seven children and nothing was wasted or taken for granted in the Spurlock’s home. At the age of fourteen, in the eighth grade, Spurlock left school to work in a fish market to help her parents financially. However, she did graduate from Peabody High School.
Through the efforts of her Sunday school teacher and the Associated Charities of Pittsburgh, Spurlock was afforded the opportunity to attend the New York School of Social Work where she distinguished herself in her criminology class. This led to her being encouraged by Columbia University law professor, George W.
Kirchwey, to embark upon a legal career. He reportedly told her, “You are in the wrong field.” But before her legal studies were to have begun, she married Rufus Sampson, a field agent for Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.
Shortly after finishing her undergraduate work, the newlyweds moved to Chicago where they worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association while doing postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Sampson then took a job as a social worker with the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society.
Around 1922, she enrolled in the night school program at John Marshall Law School. For the first year, she was the only Black and the only woman student. The white male students made studying very difficult for her, but she prevailed and eventually received a special commendation for receiving the highest grade in her jurisprudence course. She divorced Rufus Sampson but used the “Sampson” surname for the rest of her life.
She graduated from law school in 1925, but subsequently failed the Illinois bar exam. She said it was “the best thing that could have happened to me.” Sampson enrolled in Loyola Law School graduate degree program and became the first woman to receive a Master of Laws. She was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1927. In 1934, she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and married Joseph Clayton who joined her law firm. Along with Georgia Jones Ellis, a fellow alumna from John Marshall Law School, Sampson helped to break the color line in the National Association of Women Lawyers. She was appointed assistant state’s attorney in Cook County in 1947.
She was active in numerous organizations, including the NAACP, the Chicago Urban League, National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the League of Women Voters and the Afro-World Fellowship. Her activities led to her participation in a world tour as part of America’s Town Hall representing NCNW. She was severely criticized by civil rights groups for the way she represented the oppression of Blacks to audiences abroad. As a result of her speeches on American’s racial policies, President Harry Truman appointed her as the first alternate delegate to the United Nations. She served in several capacities in the U.N. and abroad, representing the U.S. from about 1950 to 1962.
Her husband died in 1959. This caused her to gradually withdraw from the rigors of the U.N. After leaving the U.N., she was elected to the Chicago Municipal Court becoming the first Black woman to be ‘elected’ as a judge in the United States. Elected to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1966, she retired from the bench in 1979.
Edith S. Sampson died in 1980.
WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER “W.C.” HANDY The life of “W.C.” Handy is synonymous with the story of the blues for he was called the Father of the Blues. He was born in Florence, Alabama, the son of a minister. He learned the rudiments of music while still in junior high school and began arranging for church choirs. His father dissuaded him from any “sinful” music and directed his talent towards church groups. When he was eighteen years old, he left home and headed for Chicago.
There were not many opportunities for a Black man to earn a living in music performing solo acts and Handy had to struggle to make end meet on a daily basis. Some nights he had to sleep outdoors and depend on his survival instincts to obtain food. As he passed through many towns, where his presence was tenuous in the daytime, sundown would bring with it a dreadful set of circumstances. From those experiences, he penned a famous line, “I hate to see the evening sun go down.”
Though his musical experience, up to that point had been in church choirs, in the fields and in the streets, he quickly gravitated to the Lauzetta Quartet. He was also well rounded in his ability to play secular music and spirituals at the same time. His rendition of the blues was mixed with secular music that grew out of his association with farm hands, laborers, railroad workers, woodcutters and generally, “the people in the field.” and it produced songs of despair, pain and hopelessness. His spirituals, however, focused on higher ideals and dealt with personal relationships, freedom and the joyful things in life.
He studied at Kentucky Music College, was the music instructor and bandmaster at Alabama A&M College and toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba. He started as a cornetist, mingled with an assortment of musical groups and eventually became bandleader of the Mahara’s Minstrel Band. At the turn of the twentieth century, he organized and led military and dance bands in Mississippi, then moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he formed the Pace and Handy Music Company with lyricist, Harry Pace. The company became a booking agent for other bands, and a publishing agent for Handy’s musical compositions. This created an African American control of African American music and entertainment in the Memphis area.
The first composition Handy published was Memphis Blues that was done earlier for a political campaign and was originally entitled, Mr. Crump. Next came St. Louis Blues, which was an instant success and it became his signature musical piece. He went on to write over sixty songs about the Blues, that he became known as the “Father of the Blues.” He also composed Aframerican Hymn, Blue Destiny, a symphonic piece, and about 150 other compositions, both sacred and secular.
Handy directed a thirty-piece concert orchestra at the famed Carnegie Hall, New York, entitled History of Music. This was at the height of the “Negro Renaissance,” a period that was dominated by the big band era of the Black orchestras. He used Black artists to interpret the history of Negro musical forms from slavery to Jazz to the Blues. His songs extended beyond Jazz and the Blues and influenced other fields of popular music. “W.C.” Handy became a household name. Some of his other compositions are Beale Street Blues, Yellow Dog Blues, Careless Love, and Joe Turner Blues.
The strain of composing resulted in the partial loss of his eyesight but he remained active in the music business. In 1931, the city of Memphis honored Handy with a bronze statue in Handy Park overlooking the same Beale Street that he had written about. Then in 1947, the city opened the W.C. Handy Theater. He also founded the Handy Foundation for the Blind 11 years later. Then in May 1969, 11 years after he passed, the U.S. Postal Service issued a six-cent stamp entitled “W. C.” Handy, Father of the Blues.
William C. “W.C.” Handy died in 1958.
OSCAR STANTON DE PRIEST
Oscar De Priest was the first Black to be elected a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the twentieth century. He was born in Florence, Alabama to Alexander R. and Mary (Karsner) De Priest; they were former slaves. They moved to Salina, Kansas, when he was about six years old. He attended public schools and then went to Salina Normal where took a course in Business and Bookkeeping. He moved to Dayton, Ohio, briefly, and then to Chicago, Illinois in 1889 where he became a painter and decorator.
De Priest developed his own business in the stock market and real estate, and amassed a fortune. He married Jessie Williams in 1898. As a successful businessman, his interest in politics was natural. He received Republican backing and was elected Cook County Commissioner in 1904. He was re-elected in 1906 and two years later, he was appointed an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Though he had higher political aspirations, De Priest ambitions were stifled until 1915, when he was elected to Chicago City Council as its first Black alderman. As the only Black, he aligned himself with both parties. While on the city council, he was also a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission and the board of directors of the Binga State Bank. He remained one of the few Black delegates to the Republican National Convention for several conventions.
He was a staunch supporter of the local congressman from the 21st congressional district of Illinois and when the congressman suddenly died, De Priest waged a successful campaign for the vacant seat and won. He became the only Black member of congress in 1928. He also became the unofficial spokesman – and a national symbol – for the entire Black population in the nation at that time.
He was a tireless advocate for every legal right that Black people were denied and fought fearlessly – most time single-handedly – against racial bias and discrimination. He was blunt, outspoken and forceful in his desire to improve the quality of life and subsequently the overall status of Blacks in America. He ran into his greatest opposition when he proposed that states that overtly discriminated against Blacks be deprived of some of their congressional seats; and he also advocated that ex-slaves over the age of seventy-five be given a monthly pension. These created a furor among his Republican support, and he began to move towards the Democratic Party.
The stock market crash in 1930 hit Blacks severely and it further limited De Priest’s ability to do anything meaningful for his constituents. especially his Black constituents. His position on federal relief programs was controversial and further alienated him from his supporters during the Depression. He was not a socially “polished” or “ivy-league educated” person but he stood his ground in matters pertaining to his people. He denounced timid Blacks as “Uncle Tom Negroes” and overly “accommodating” whites as part of the same scheme that slowed the progress of Blacks. He was convinced that it was incumbent on Black people to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps and to refrain from dependence on white benevolence. De Priest urged Blacks to learn practical politics and to vigorously engage in political campaigns.
He was defeated for his congressional seat by Arthur Mitchell, a Black Democrat in 1934, but remained active in public life serving from 1943 to 1947 as alderman of the Third Ward in Chicago. In between his stints in public office, De Priest continued in his stock market and real estate businesses. He finally withdrew from politics after a bitter dispute with the Republican Party.
He kept his private life out of the public domain; he reportedly was a member of the Presbyterian Church and of the Grand Lodge of Elks. He always identified with the common man and his slogan was, “I am of the common herd.”
Oscar De Priest died in Chicago on May 12, 1951.