Q&A with Shennette Garrett-Scott, 2016-2017 Davis Center Fellow

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Interview collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer
March 6, 2017

Shennette Garrett-Scott, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi, spoke about the project she is working on as a 2016-2017 Davis Center Fellow, her manuscript Invincible Daughters of Commerce: The Independent Order of St. Luke and Black Women in Finance, 1900-1940s. It will be published as part of the Columbia Studies in the History of Capitalism Series. In the project, she aims to tell the first history of financial industries that places black women at the forefront, stressing how gender and race formation were inextricably linked with early twentieth-century U.S. finance. She focuses on the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), which was founded by free women of color as a secret society in 1867. The IOSL then opened a bank in 1903 that became the longest-operating black-controlled bank until its purchase in 2011.

How did you get interested in the Independent Order of St. Luke?

When I got to graduate school, I already knew I wanted to do women, business, and the National Negro Business League, but I wasn’t finding enough women in the League, and so I had to look elsewhere. Then I stumbled upon the Independent Order of St. Luke because they had such a large national insurance plan, and they had a bank. I was drawn into the IOSL's orbit.

What was the geographic range of the IOSL?

The center was in Richmond, but, at its height around World War II, it reached 27 states as far west as Utah, and it had over 100,000 members and millions of dollars of insurance in force. The bank, which was renamed the Consolidated Bank and Trust after a merger with two other black-owned banks in the 1930s, mostly made loans in the southeast region and in IOSL strongholds like New York and Philadelphia. It also operated its own businesses, financed other businesses, and lent money all around the country.

It seems that in the beginning the IOSL was a secret order, but then I got the sense as time went on that it was not a secret.

Maggie Lena Walker, who was the driving force of the Order for over thirty years, really cherished the secret, mysterious part of the Order. She believed in the sociability and conviviality of the Order, and she loved the ceremony and regalia. Members had secret passwords, and they participated in secret rituals. However, there was also the business end of the Order. People held insurance and did banking with the IOSL, but they weren’t privy to the social part of the Order. She knew that the success of the Order hinged on its being open and accessible, and so it was kind of a two-tier organization, with one part wedded to traditions and then another part that was very transparent, modern, and forward-looking.

Maggie Lena Walker, 1905. Photo by James Farley, Jefferson Gallery, Richmond, Va. Valentine Museum.

Maggie Lena Walker

So then the secrecy didn’t have anything to do with the fact that it was giving money to black women.

No. In fact, the secrecy was where the social networks and social bonds were cemented and nurtured. One of their big events surrounded death. Women would come to your home in the event of a death. They attended the funeral, packing the church, and they made a full show of the procession to the interment. And they did this in full regalia: rosettes, sashes, pins, and everyone would wear a certain color. Plus they honored those who died in memorial services throughout the year. So they tried to preserve those elements of the Order that built community, but they really saw themselves as a modern business organization. The generation of leaders working with Walker transformed a lot of those cultural practices into business ones, like in their underwriting standards, sales promotions, and debt-collection methods. In addition, Maggie Lena Walker was insistent that they keep abreast of the latest business practices and methods. They had state-of-the-art equipment, and she learned from successful white women like Bina West in the Ladies of the Maccabees, actually visiting and observing its operations in Port Huron, Michigan. The members and employees of IOSL were also very active in civil rights, health, and economic justice issues, especially women’s suffrage, education, tuberculosis prevention, and buy-black campaigns.

It’s interesting that the community part is what helps the financial part exist.

Yes, I think that they reinforce each other. But, at the same time, it became more and more difficult to build and maintain community, especially as the bank and insurance functions became more diverse and lucrative. And “community” is one of the things that I explore in my work. There are two important works on St. Luke: A Right Worthy Grand Mission by anthropologist Gertrude Marlowe, and historian Elsa Barkley Brown’s “Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke,” which draws on her dissertation “Uncle Ned’s Children” about community and institution building in Richmond. These works really stress the important role of community in addressing these issues and concerns that were very specific to African American women.

My work acknowledges the importance of that community, but I trouble it, too. A new generation of young black women coming up under Walker worked in the Order and used the bank’s services. The IOSL was the largest private employer of black women in Richmond—and probably the country. They shared some of the Order’s values, but they were more modern. They liked to dance, and listen to jazz, and not have chaperones, and wear short dresses. They also had different ideas about—and opportunities to participate in—consumerism and leisure. So they liked to do a lot of things that the older generation of St. Luke women looked down on. Part of the battle touches on the politics of respectability.

The politics of respectability is an important concept we use in Africana women studies. It was first developed by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent. She argued that one strategy women used to combat negative stereotypes about African American women­­­­—about their sexuality, their intellect, their beauty—included comporting themselves in a manner that turned those stereotypes on their head. They used proper manners, dressed immaculately, and pursued education. But that politics of respectability was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they were able to assert a definition of black womanhood that combatted these stereotypes, but they also capitulated to many of the same stereotypes. So women who didn’t dress a certain way, or women who had children out of wedlock, or women who were engaged in activities that weren’t seen as respectable were seen as a discredit to the race. Those politics really become important when I write about the bank’s customers and stockholders, respectable kinds of debt, and methods to collect from delinquent women borrowers.

The politics of respectability remains really important today, especially in the Black Lives Matter movement and in highlighting state-sanctioned, police violence against black and brown folks, in part because there’s a generation of activists who believe that the new student activists, for example, need to follow the lessons and tactics of the revered generation of Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolent resistance. There’s an image of civil rights marchers compared to shirtless young men with sagging pants that has gone viral. The byline is, “When they took us seriously and why they don’t now.” The new generation objects, saying that whether you wear a hoodie or a suit doesn’t change how you’re affected by the police or state violence or poverty. And it says nothing about your level of political consciousness or fundamental right to be treated with respect.

So my work is in this modern vein of Africana women studies that troubles the concept of community and acknowledges many ways the community was in tension and at odds within itself. People had different values and priorities—and interests: interests tied to their pocketbooks and class position. I want to bring in some of those “unrespectable elements,” too, like the role gambling and the informal and extralegal economy played. I do this in Richmond, but I also follow the bank’s customers and IOSL councils to places like Harlem and Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Many African Americans felt playing the numbers or policy, a lottery betting game, was a legitimate route to economic security. This kind of attitude was definitely against the respectable saving and thrift behavior advocated by the leadership of St. Luke. I also really want to show how, in the 1930s through the post-WWII years, African American women mobilized around where and how they spent their money. Beyond home buying and insurance policies, they focused on issues related to consumption and often resorted to boycotts to press for jobs and better-quality goods and services. We also have the rise of mutual funds and whole life policies promoted by black firms as instruments of individual rather than communal strategies for building wealth. The message was very different from the early message of thrift and collective advancement. The modern, post-WWII-era woman focused on consumption and credit and on asserting herself through her spending versus saving.

An interior view of the bank. National Park Service.

You describe the IOSL as a society “organized by black women for women,” so was it for all women, for black women, for women of color? How did they define the group of people they served?

When I describe it as an organization for women by women, I acknowledge the desires of the original founder, Mary Prout. Prout was a free woman of color born in Maryland who, I’ve found evidence for this, actually started St. Luke in the mid-1850s—more than a decade before the generally accepted founding date of 1867. Some of her contemporaries claim to quote her saying she wanted the organization to be only for women, and for all the years that she was head of the St. Luke Society, only black women participated. Part of this was because of its connection to the African Methodist Episcopal church and the church’s gender proscriptions. She and other women in the church asserted rather than openly demanded their right, as mothers and wives, to provide for orphans and widows. It was during and after the Civil War that she extended her abolitionist and community work to try to meet the needs of self-emancipated African Americans. Tens of thousands of them were drawn to Baltimore. She also faced stiff competition with other mutual aid, fraternal, and secret societies, many started in the antebellum period, that could now operate in the open and were attracting members to their fold. In this context, she opened up the membership to men and to people outside of Maryland.

These organizations were created in a time of crystallizing racial hierarchies and segregation, so a white person would not even consider being a member of an organization like St. Luke. Integrated societies were not unheard of though they quickly died out after the Civil War. Some societies, especially temperance ones like the True Reformers, kicked out or divorced themselves from their black members. Other secret societies like the Masons, Oddfellows, and Knights of Pythias actually sued black fraternals like the Colored Masons for using their names and works, that is, the secrets of the order. Those organizations were able to weather these legal attacks and continue to operate as segregated orders, so there existed a white and a black order in some fraternals. The Colored Masons, Oddfellows, and Pythians had women auxiliaries that allowed women to participate, though in a subordinate role: the Eastern Stars, Daughters of Ruth, and Court of Calanthe, for instance. These women challenged this subordinate status, largely over issues of control of their insurance features and female-centered spaces rather than over their voices in the male-dominated side of the orders.

The St. Lukes were one of the few societies created by black women that grew into prominence; another is the Tents, which remained very secretive and still does charitable work today. The St. Lukes also chose not to become the sister of a male fraternal, like the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, which kind of became subsumed under its brother fraternal the United Brothers of Friendship. I just love these names! So the St. Luke women never really had that subordination battle the Calantheans fought, for example. The Daughters part of the Independent Order of the Sons and Daughters of St. Luke always took a prominent role in every facet of the IOSL.

Regarding your original question, I’m not saying that the black orders self-segregated. At that time, few would ever consider that whites and blacks would mix socially in that way. But Maggie Lena Walker herself and many members of the IOSL did engage in interracial social reform and some activism; they worked with other white women and white women’s groups. Of course, that brought up problems and tensions, but Maggie Lena Walker felt that if the IOSL and black women were to extend their influence, they needed to participate in these interracial coalitions, no matter how difficult and limited they were. Plus they often outdid the white women and men who were the acknowledged “leaders” of the movement. Black women opened their own clubhouse, built an industrial school for girls, and paid the first couple of years’ expenses of the Richmond Urban League with money they raised through the order and the black community. I love that because the St. Lukes provided not just leadership and feet on the ground but, most important, the money.

Ppromotional postcard of the bank, c. 1911 celebrating the construction of the new bank building. National Park Service.

Do you have a favorite anecdote or person from your study that struck you as really quirky or exceptional?

Oh, yes! I was actually going to put this in a blog post, but I never did so I’m glad for the chance to really build the story in the book. There was no love lost between Walker and Virginia’s Insurance Commissioner. He subjected the Order to surprise inspections, but he seemed to love calling Walker into his office and trying to dress her down—telling her what she was and was not going to do. Walker, it seems, relished just as much defying him while still seeming to do what he wanted. Their conflict culminated at one point in him throwing Walker in jail—well, trying to throw her in jail. I mean, people loved Miss Maggie but they also trembled in the presence of Mrs. Walker. Walker goes to the jailhouse, but what happens next—well, you’ll have to read the book.

I also have some personal stories that I bring in to introduce the St. Luke story. I have some really wild stories to tell about my own experiences working during the height and crash of the subprime market. Scientology and the mob—I’ll just stop there.

This is a history of capitalism, and some people might think it’s just about a bank and insurance. How boring is that? I’m really hoping to liven it up with these kinds of nefarious stories, contemporary and historic. I want to make these people seem real—they’re hardworking, they’re funny, they’re crooked, they’re haters, and they’re good people. So I’m hoping to show a whole range of human emotions and interests. I hope that people see this as a this-ain’t-your-daddy’s-dry-old business history. That’s definitely one of the things I’m hoping to achieve with this work while showing black women as active agents in shaping early twentieth-century finance.

This perception of being in it to make money and then also wanting to help people—this sort of apparent paradox—do you think that is what has led people to ignore women who are on the “other side” of capital—to focus on the laborers rather than the elite, the “good guys” rather than the “bad guys”?

The respectability politics that twentieth-century women were practicing was also apparent in the historiography. There was a tendency to focus on big valiant organizations and heroes in Africana women’s history, but now we are focusing on a broad spectrum on women. The historiography has been heavy on club work, reform work, civil rights activism, professionalization, labor, and intellectual history, for example. Those are and remain outstanding, critical, really important histories. A lot of the recent scholarship, too, has shaken up some of the respectability discourse in terms of who we pay attention to: sex workers, incarcerated women, athletes—the histories run the gamut. I think we still need more African American women’s economic and entrepreneurial development stories: building black businesses and creating wealth. One reason I think people might shy away from those stories is because they think the focus will be on elite actors, but not necessarily. Laundresses, tobacco factory workers, and domestic workers stand at the center of my history. Also, I think people are already doing a lot of capitalism studies work—they just frame it as labor history or carceral studies, for example, but we should be more vocal about black women’s role in shaping modern capitalism. I and others are hoping to continue calling forth the many ways that African American women were independent, enterprising economic actors beyond and in addition to how we’ve talked about and looked at them before.