Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a former slave, was a black entrepreneur and civil rights activist who achieved business success at about the same time as the more well-known Vanderbilts, Carnegies and other Northern captains of industry were making their names. She was a respected resident of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood during the early 20th century, when the area was experiencing its heyday.
Yes, Virginia, there is a side of Richmond known as the cradle of black capitalism, despite the fact that just a few decades earlier, during the Civil War, the city had served as the capital of the Confederacy.
During Black History Month, Richmond celebrates its black heritage in a number of venues, from the Black History Museum to the elegant Gilded Age Maymont Mansion. But there’s nothing quite like visiting Jackson Ward. Enter this not-yet-gentrified district about 14 blocks northwest of the state Capitol and you step back into a time when the thriving black community was abuzz with energy and residents frequented more than 100 black-owned theaters, insurance companies, churches, hospitals, shops and other establishments.
What brought my visit to life, along with a tour of Walker’s two-story “urban mansion,” was the walking tour of 12 historic sites that described the doctors, journalists, business people, ministers and others who once resided here, few of whom I was familiar with.
I started at Walker’s Victorian house on East Leigh Street, which retains more than 90 percent of the family’s original furnishings and belongings, an astonishingly high percentage for historic homes, said Ben Anderson, a park ranger who led me through the site. Because members of the Walker family lived in the house until they turned it over to the National Park Service in 1979, little has been lost or destroyed.
Halfway into the tour, I was joined by a family of four. Upon coming to a room in the back of the house, the mother expressed dismay at the buckets, washboard and clothes-wringer displayed there and turned to her young girls. “Can you imagine having to do that?” she asked. Indeed. Doing a family’s laundry was so arduous that it could take a week. People with money paid someone to do it for them. Walker had one of several relatives living with her do the job.
Upstairs, one of the girls lagged behind at a roped-off bedroom, intrigued by dolls in fancy dresses arrayed on a twin bed, some with white faces, others with black. Walker’s granddaughter had owned a “Tu-In-One” doll, a Siamese-twin-like doll with a head on either end, instead of feet. It becomes a white doll with a bonnet or a black doll with her hair tied up in a red cloth depending upon which head the dress covers.