In 1903, the Independent Order of St. Luke moved into its brand-new national headquarters in the St. Luke Building. The Order of St. Luke was initially founded in Baltimore in 1867 by Mary Prout, a formerly enslaved woman, to comfort its members and provide them with proper burials. Under the leadership of William Forrest, the IOSL nearly became defunct. But in 1899, Mrs. Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) became head of the organization, a role she held for 35 years until her death.
The daughter of a washerwoman, Walker was especially concerned about the plight of working class black women. A native Richmonder, she became a teacher, business executive and philanthropist. Under her leadership, the IOSL broadened both its services and its membership, eventually expanding to 24 states and 100,000 members, primarily African-American women. Walker founded the Juvenile Division of the IOSL, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank (which still exists as the Consolidated Bank and Trust), the St. Luke Herald, the St. Luke Emporium department store, and the St. Luke Press.
Regalia (sashes) used in IOSL rituals were also manufactured in the St. Luke Hall, although both the bank and the emporium had their own buildings. Before the advent of Social Security, the insurance the IOSL provided its members protected them from disability and funeral costs. It also provided mortgages and educational loans, although the factory that Walker envisioned never came to fruition. The IOSL employed black women in clerical and professional work as stenographers, clerks, and fieldworkers during a time when most black women could only find jobs as domestic maids. Unlike most such organizations, The IOSL offered membership to both women and men while focusing on the needs of women.
The Independent Order of St. Luke served the black community in Richmond for more than a century. By the 1980's, when many of its services were no longer needed or were provided by other institutions, the order disbanded. Since 1989 the privately owned St. Luke Hall has remained empty although various efforts have been made to preserve it.
In 2009 students from the College of William & Mary found a historical trove of Independent Order of St. Luke documents which have been researched under their professor, Dr. Heather Huyck. The collection reveals Walker's social and professional network and the effort it took to manage the IOSL. For example, operating as an insurance company in 24 states required licensing in each state. The organization served its members by helping them survive the inequalities and indignities of the Jim Crow era.
Located in Jackson Ward, the 1903 building was designed by white architect John H. White and remodeled under the direction of Virginia Union University President Charles T. Russell around 1919. The building was originally only three stories high. The 1919 remodeling added a fourth floor, a southern bay, an elevator, and a canopied main entrance. It was designed in the Edwardian style with a yellow pressed-brick facade and red brick secondary walls laid in American bond. Four doors and four windows opened onto its front facade. A small garden adjoined it to the south. The property was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1981 and on the National Register in 1982.
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