RICHMOND, Va. -- Folks gathered in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood on Saturday to honor a trailblazing force for women and African-Americans.
City leaders and the team at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site teamed up to commemorate what would have been the entrepreneur's 154th birthday.
Walker was the first woman to open a bank in the United States in 1903. She was also a civil rights pioneer, entrepreneur and mother who pushed for economic empowerment and independence in her neighborhood.
“Today the National Park Service is sponsoring a grand birthday celebration,” Ajena Rogers, supervisory park ranger and manager of the Maggie L. Walker historical site, said. “We have a recognition ceremony of our Leadership Institute graduates. It’s something that we have done for the past nine years."
Rogers said young leaders come from across Central Virginia each July to take part in the two-week program to learn about and develop leadership skills.
The program also examines the historic leadership in Richmond – particularly the African-Americans who called Jackson Ward home.
Skye Williams, who is enrolled in the Maggie L. Walker Summer Youth Leadership Institute, said the icon is an inspiration.
“She's a strong, independent black woman, who although she had all these challenges..., she prospered." Williams said.
Rogers said Walker was very young herself when she became active in the community.
“And going on, throughout her life, to be a nationally known leader for civil rights,” Rogers added. “Early on she started developing young leaders to come along behind her.”
Rogers said Walker would have been pleased with the group enrolled in the initiative.
“I learned that you have voice and you can speak it no matter what the situation is,” Williams said. “If something’s bothering you, you have the voice to speak up and do something about it.”
‘Awesome and beautiful’ statue of Maggie Walker
City officials also held a celebration at the statue honoring Walker at Broad and Adams streets is a gateway to the Jackson Ward neighborhood.
The 10-foot bronze sculpture, which was unveiled last year on the icon's birthday, depicts Walker at the peak of her life when she was 45 years old, according to Antonio Toby Mendez. He was contracted in 2015 to create the tribute.
"If somebody comes into this memorial and doesn't know anything about Maggie Walker, they'll walk away knowing her life story,” Mendez said in 2017. "It's hard to believe that we've come this far and that we're ready to do this."
The statue was part of a 20-year effort to pay tribute to Walker's achievements.
"July the 15th of 2017 is a day that I will remember,” said Melvin Jones Jr., who fought for the statue's installation. "Every door is open for you to do a process like this. Anybody can do it.”
Linda Arencibia said telling Walker’s story is paramount for our nation.
“Virginia is leading the pack in terms of telling an honest narrative regarding of American history," Arencibia said. "And part of doing that is uncovering African-American issues, which is central to American history.”
Arencibia called Walker a "wonderful symbol" that will "broaden a lot of people’s understanding" of history.
"She had tragedies within her life, but she never gave up hope. She always had faith,” Rogers said.
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is located at 600 N. 2nd Street in Richmond'sJackson Ward neighborhood.