African American Women

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker First Black Female Bank PresidentWhen Maggie Lena Walker was just a teen she joined the local chapter of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal society that provided for the needs of African Americans. Walker believed in a strong community. She also believed African Americans should establish institutions within their community to strengthen it and help it thrive.

Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 15, 1864 to parents who were formerly enslaved. She attended the Richmond Normal Colored School where she trained as a teacher. After graduating, she taught for three years. At the same time she continued her education and took classes in accounting and business management.

In 1902 Walker founded the St. Luke-Herald newspaper and used the paper to encourage African Americans to grab and hold onto their power by establishing businesses and institutions. The following year she established St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as the bank’s first president.

During the Great Depression, when many banks failed, Walker managed to keep St. Luke Penny Savings alive by merging with two other Richmond banks. The new bank was named The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker served as Chairperson of the Board of Directors.

Later in her life she became partially paralyzed. Walker refused to let her paralysis stop her and continued working for the bank and her community until her death on December 15, 1934.

In 1979 Maggie Lena Walker’s Richmond home was purchased by the National Park Service and designated a National Historic Site.

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset, poet, editor, essayist and novelist, saw the Harlem Renaissance as a historical educational opportunity. For her it was a chance to tell the stories of African Americans through the lens of other blacks and not through the lens of white writers.

Fauset was born on April 27, 1882 in Camden County, New Jersey. She attended Cornell University where she became the first African American woman elected to the academic honorary society, Phi Beta Kappa.

Following her graduation from Cornell, Fauset moved to Washington, DC and taught high school for several years. She moved to New York in 1912 and became a literary contributor to The Crisis Magazine, a publication of the NAACP. Fauset later became the magazine’s literary editor. She was an influential editor and used that influence to turn the magazine into a major publishing channel for black writers. She also used her influence to develop the work of several young writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.

Jessie Redmon Fauset also published her own work which consisted of short stories, essays, poems and literary reviews. She was inspired to write a novel after reading one by a white author in which African Americans were caricatured. Her first, There is Confusion, about a middle class black family was published in 1924.

Fauset would write three more novels featuring black middle class characters. She once said the goal in her writing was to present “the homelife of the Colored American,” without the melodrama or caricature that she saw from white writers.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth KeckleyElizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. She was sent out to work by her enslaver to make money for his family. She worked as a seamstress and soon had several prominent customers, several of whom loaned her money so she could purchase her freedom.

Keckley moved to Washington, DC in 1860 where she opened a successful dressmaking business. At one point she had 20 female employees in the business.

Keckley was highly sought after by the Washington elite and was soon the dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She and Mrs. Lincoln bonded and became friends and traveling companions.

In 1862, with the help of her church, Keckley established the Contraband Relief Organization to help newly freed slaves in the Washington DC area. She was the organization’s first president and her connection to Mrs. Lincoln helped her find needed financial support.

She published her diaries, “Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” in 1868. The book, which was somewhat of a tell-all, was condemned by blacks and whites. It also brought an end to the Keckley-Lincoln friendship. Even though her business was affected she was able to maintain some customers as well support other African American women by training them to be dressmakers.

In 1892 Keckley moved to Ohio to take the position of Head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. After her employment at Wilberforce, she returned to Washington DC where she died in 1907.

One of the dresses, believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) was the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge.

She was appointed by President Lyndon B Johnson in 1966 to serve in the Southern District of New York, the largest and busiest federal court in the country.

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut on September 21, 1921. She earned a degree in economics from New York University and a law degree from Columbia University. While studying at Columbia she joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She later became the organization’s Associate Counsel.

Motley worked on all the school segregation cases supported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund including Brown v Board of Education. She was the only female attorney on the landmark case.

Constance Baker Motley worked with the NAACP for more than twenty years and was the lead attorney in James Meredith’s successful fight to attend the University of Mississippi. She was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and won nine of the civil rights cases she argued before the US Supreme and Court.

Judge Motley later went into politics. In 1964 she became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Assembly.

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor was one of the first people to write about her experience with a “colored regiment” during the Civil War.

Taylor was born into slavery in Georgia in 1848. She learned to read and write with other African American children in a secret school in Savannah.

During this period blacks, free and enslaved, needed a pass to be out after 9:00 pm. If caught without a pass they would be arrested and held in custody until the following morning. After learning to write, Taylor would often write passes for her family and other African Americans in the area.

When the Civil War started she traveled with her husband’s regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. When the Bureau of United States Colored Troops was formed the unit became the 33rd USCT.

Susie King Taylor was assigned to be a laundress for the unit, but soon took on the role of nurse and caregiver. She also taught the soldiers to read and write in their spare time.

Her book,  “Reminiscences of MY LIFE IN CAMP” was published in 1902.