Uncovered boxes shed light on Maggie Lena Walker, an African American icon and first woman to own a U.S. bank

Heather ­Huyck never would have let her students climb the rickety stairs up to the attic of an empty building in Richmond. But she’s glad she wasn’t there to stop them.

Under piles of debris, the young researchers from the College of William & Mary found about 30 boxes filled with old documents. They appeared to tell the story of Maggie Lena Walker, an African American whose accomplishments in the early 20th century are just beginning to be widely recognized.

Walker was the first African American woman to run a bank in the United States. She also started a newspaper and a department store and ran a nationwide insurance system. She spread the tools of economic independence while Jim Crow was perpetuating bondage, and she hired and trained black women at a time when even white women struggled for opportunity.

Huyck sensed a major find. After negotiating with the family who owned the building, she brought the papers back to Williamsburg to begin going through them.

It was then that something extraordinary happened. Huyck couldn’t do the work alone, so over time she gathered volunteers. Through church, word-of-mouth and the network of history buffs around Colonial Williamsburg, a corps of mostly retired women came together on the project.

They met every Tuesday over the past eight years, a diverse group — black, white, Asian — ranging in age from 50 to 89. In between the rote work of removing paper clips and transcribing letters, they talked. About history, but also about marriage. And children. And food. They helped each other through surgeries and health scares. One woman transitioned to assisted living. Another lost her spouse.

So while they were preserving the papers that told how Walker navigated the challenges of race and gender in early 20th century America, they were finding the same threads in their lives.

“What we have gained from this,” Huyck said, “is an amazing community.”

The Maggie Walker Community, they call themselves. But now it’s coming to a close. Huyck finished the project earlier this month and returned the boxes to the owners in a ceremony in Richmond attended by brass from the National Park Service, which maintains Walker’s home as a historic site.

“This is a good example of how stories that haven’t been easily accessible are now going to be available to a much wider audience,” said Stephanie Toothman, the Park Service’s associate director for cultural resources. Walker’s papers, she said, help with “understanding the role of black women as community builders and organizers.”

It’s unclear where the papers will end up. The Stallings family, which owns the papers, are undecided; some members want to donate them to the Park Service, others favor the Smithsonian. For now, they’re in storage.

Huyck hopes there is a lasting legacy not just in the papers, but also in the connections formed in their group of about 16. Especially in a town such as Williamsburg, which is devoted to retelling history but has struggled with race in its depictions of Colonial charm.

“I’ve met this wonderful group of women who have opened my eyes to a world I did not know about and have been accepting of everybody’s differences,” said group member Marsha Kalison, a retired accountant.

“I think it would be terrible for the group to die,” said Sharon Ochsenhirt, a retired archivist. “My goal is to make sure they keep going.”

Huyck spent years working for the National Park Service before retiring in Williamsburg and becoming a research associate and adjunct professor at William & Mary. Her specialty is women’s history, and the students who found the documents in Richmond nearly 10 years ago had gone there to make a film about Walker.

Walker has long been a towering figure in Richmond, where a governor’s school is named for her. Her father was an Irish-born Confederate working at a nearby hospital for wounded soldiers. Her mother was a former slave who cooked for Elizabeth Van Lew, the abolitionist and Civil War spy. As Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in the early 1900s, Walker took over leadership of a mutual aid society called the Independent Order of St. Luke.

With its budget flagging, Walker elbowed past the male establishment to impose financial discipline on the group and used its national scope to build institutions to help the black community. She died in 1934 at age 70, and her funeral brought thousands of mourners.

The papers that Huyck’s students found in the former St. Luke building gave glimpses of the lives she touched. There were letters from people asking how to finance a home, from a church looking to raise enough money to burn its mortgage, from women applying for jobs.

Walker’s personality came through — tough, demanding, persistent. She told one young woman asking for work not to bother until she had polished her handwriting. When a field organizer kept seeking more money, she demanded to know why he wasn’t producing more members.

Walker was a grand woman, fond of feathers and hats, owner of a Pierce-Arrow. She corresponded with luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and NAACP leader Walter White and spoke up to the white establishment. Walker believed the African American community needed to support its people. She urged residents to boycott Richmond’s white retailers, who often made blacks enter through separate doors or stay out of showrooms, and started her emporium as an alternative.

The women working on her papers sat in pairs, one reading, the other transcribing. They wore purple smocks, rubber gloves and breathing masks to protect the fragile documents. Huyck and her husband bought acid-free folders and file boxes. Scanning company Iron Mountain donated services to digitize 100 of the most important documents, and for the past two years, Colonial Williamsburg provided meeting space in a library building.

Many letters in the files felt personal to the volunteers. One woman wrote to Walker after being stopped from trying on coats in the Miller & Rhoads department store in downtown Richmond. Walker complained to the president of the company, who replied that “there are nice people and there are not-nice people and we try to serve the nice people, and therefore the manager may have made a mistake,” Huyck recalled.

What he meant, she said, is that he would give this woman permission to try on coats because she was affluent and of a certain complexion. Vivian Miller Short, one of the volunteers, was horrified when she realized that the woman in the letters was an old family friend.

“It hurts,” she said, still embarrassed at the notion of complexion defining someone’s station. “It’s painful.”

But those situations triggered conversations among the women working on the letters. Short recalled having to shop in the basement at Richmond department stores because of her race. Other women in the group remembered separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms in the train station in Richmond, the bus station in Williamsburg.

It wasn’t all painful. Much of the conversation involved everyday things, cultural touchstones that they shared. It turned out, for instance, that most of the black women in the group had been born with the aid of midwives. They sometimes had a second birth date — the day the midwife got around to filing the official paperwork.

Some topics brought universal agreement — they all loved the movie “Hidden Figures,” set in nearby Hampton — while others broke them into factions.

“One of the first things I learned,” Ochsenhirt said during a recent gathering of the group, “is there are two kinds of turnip salad.”

“There are?” June Ross asked.

“There’s the turnip salad made with leaves and the turnip salad made with turnips,” Ochsenhirt said.

“My grandfather made dandelion salad,” said Belinda Randall, and the room spiraled into a salad debate.

It was the way they connected as women, mothers, wives — as people — that made them feel they had achieved something special.

“They’ve lived life. They say what they mean and mean what they say. You don’t have to guess and play mind games. They’re lovely ladies,” said Cynthia Davis, at 50 the youngest member of the group. She has been attending only for the past couple of months; she’s a caregiver for the group’s most senior member, Doris Crump Rainey, 89.

And in many ways, the spirit of Maggie Walker — merely suggested by the brittle, crumbling papers — came to feel like a presence in their lives. When things would get frustrating, the women asked themselves: “What would Maggie do?”

That included when Huyck was laid up after surgery a few years ago, and the Maggie Walker Community came to her aid. They organized, and a different woman showed up with food every day. Lots of food.

“I had never been part of such an amazing outpouring,” Huyck said.