Friday, January 20, 2017

Touring the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

While in Richmond, another historic site to visit that might bring a respite from Civil War battlefields is the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. Managed by the Park Service, it is also a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Site. Located at 110½ E. Leigh Street on "Quality Row" in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, the site was established in 1978 to tell the story of the life and work of Maggie L. Walker, and to preserve the restored and originally furnished Walker home.

From the National Park Service website: “Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination.” Mrs. Walker was the first woman to serve as president of a bank in the US, among many other accomplishments, including what was possibly the first school strike of the civil rights movement when Maggie’s class staged a boycott to protest the inferior graduation facilities offered to the Colored Normal School.

The Walker home was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1975. It includes several buildings, but the crown jewel is the building Maggie lived in from 1905 until her death in 1934. Our visit began at the Visitor Center at 600 N. 2nd St. in the Historic Jackson Ward. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this neighborhood was one of the most prosperous black communities in the U.S. The banks, insurance companies, stores, theatres and other institutions were all black-owned and operated, and today Jackson Ward is considered the birthplace of African American entrepreneurship.

The view from the Visitor Center of the 1890s rear-addition to the Maggie L Walker home

The Visitor Center faces the courtyard across from the Walker home. Previously these were all the backyards of the homes on “Quality Row” here on E. Leigh St. The Walker home expanded over the years to accommodate their growing family and eventually annexed the entire yard; when the historic site was created the fences were knocked down, the neighboring duplexes were restored to their 1925 appearance, and exhibits and park offices were installed. We watched a short movie on Mrs. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and then headed over to the house for a Ranger-led tour.

Lauris found some of the titles on Mrs. Walker's shelves familiar!

As we were the only guests on this particular tour, the Ranger was able to tailor his presentation to the boys interests; we learned about Mrs. Walker’s life in Richmond through the minutiae of everyday life (ice boxes, washboards and writing desks) as well as a fascinating portrait of a more intimate nature (old photographs and Mrs. Walker’s library). Our guide was patient and knowledgeable, and the boys stayed on their best behavior through the end of the tour when they were presented with Junior Ranger badges.

The boys giving the Park Service Jr. Ranger pledge

Our visit to the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site was short, not more than a couple of hours. However, during that time we received another piece of the puzzle that is this historic area of Virginia, one that offers a completely different perspective than that of war-torn Civil War Richmond. We tucked that knowledge securely away (along with our Junior Ranger badges) and headed towards the James River for yet another puzzle piece – the Virginia State Capital

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