Maggie Lena Walker
“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” – Maggie Lena Walker
“Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go.” – Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker was a teacher, a businesswoman, a community leader, a newspaper publisher and the United States’ first female bank president of any race. In addition to community service, education and financial independence for women, she focused her attention on accounting and math. In a day and age when there were few opportunities for women to go into “respectable” careers, Maggie defied convention.
She was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 15, 1864 during the final year of the Civil War. The Civil War would not end until almost a year later. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865. On April 9, 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. One last battle was fought at Palmito Ranch Texas, on May 13, 1865.
Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave. Her father was a Confederate soldier. After the war ended, Elizabeth took in laundry to earn a meager living.
Maggie Lena Walker’s life was based on a commitment to serving others and guided by an unshakeable faith that saw her through every obstacle that came her way.
This is Maggie Lena Walker’s story.
The Hello Girls
The “Hello Girls” were the members of The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. During World War I, these women were sworn in to the U.S. Army Signal Corps and operated telephone switchboards in England and France.
In 1917, General John J. Pershing issued a call to improve communications on the Western Front. The call asked for multilingual women to become “switchboard soldiers.” There were local operators, but often, they were not fluent in English. More than 7,000 women answered the call and applied. Two hundred twenty three were selected and accepted into the unit. They were sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Many of them had worked for civilian telephone companies and had a background in telephone communications.
Led by Chief Operator Grace Banker, the first group of thirty three women left for Europe in March, 1918. They connected critical calls between Allied Forces. They worked near the battlefields in France, often with shells falling around them. They went on to operate switchboards in many French and English locations.
The “Hello Girls” were considered civilian employees even though they wore Army uniforms and were subjected to Army regulations. As such, they were denied honorable discharge papers. Between 1927 and 1977, bills were introduced in Congress to gain recognition for the women of The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. In November, 1977, Congress passed a bill that was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. The “Hello Girls” were finally recognized as veterans and received their honorable discharge papers.
The Harvey Girls
Some of us remember the movie The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland. On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe by Johnny Mercer, a song from that movie, became a hit.
The Harvey Girls were real – they are part of American History.
Fred Harvey was a freight agent in the 1870s. He traveled the rails in the days before there were dining cars on passenger trains. Food that could be purchased at the train depots was decidedly not wonderful. He saw a need and filled it. He and the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad came to an oral agreement that benefited the railroad and the train’s passengers – and, of course, the Fred Harvey Company as well. The Fred Harvey Company opened its first restaurant at a train depot in Topeka, Kansas in January, 1876.
He put advertisements in Midwestern and Eastern publications calling for single women between the ages of eighteen and thirty. They were to work as waitresses in the restaurants. In addition to being between the ages of eighteen and single, the women who were hired had to meet other qualifications as well. They had to be educated, attractive, intelligent and of “good character.” And they had to sign a contract. One source I read stated it was a one-year contract; another source stated it was a six-month contract. In the beginning, they were often the only single women in the southwestern areas in which they worked. And that was an attraction for the single men in the area. The Harvey Girls also offered a touch of grace in the wild west of the 1880s.
The “girls” worked under the supervision of the waitress who’d been in each location the longest and who served as a housemother. They lived in dormitories next to or near the restaurant, or in the Harvey Hotel when there was one at the location. They had a strict 10:00 pm curfew and strict regulations regarding their uniforms (black with white pinafore aprons with hems no more than eight inches above the floor). Makeup was forbidden – and chewing gum while on the job was also forbidden. The regulations made the women desirable marriage candidates. They were “respectable” women who were supervised and protected in a rough and tumble world.
Fifteen Harvey House restaurants were in operation by 1891. The Harvey Girls were a significant component of the restaurants. By 1901, there were 57 Fred Harvey restaurants and 15 hotels spread across the United States from the Midwest to the West Coast.
Whether it’s true or not, it’s also been said that the presence of the Harvey Girls helped civilize the Southwest. Will Rogers was quoted as saying that Fred Harvey kept the west supplied with food and wives.
For the women who came west as waitresses for the Fred Harvey Company, the experience was liberating. They had the opportunity to leave home, to travel and have new experiences, to earn their own way and be independent.
The “Harvey Girls” may be fading into the mist of times past, but these adventurous spirits who went west to find independence helped pave the way for women who wanted to lead independent lives.
Notice the Harvey Girls standing in front of the Harvey House in this photograph