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Owners seek return of Maggie Walker papers

Jeremy Lazarus | 3/4/2017, 9:30 a.m.
Eight years ago, curious students from the College of William & Mary stumbled across a treasure trove of documents hidden ...

Eight years ago, curious students from the College of William & Mary stumbled across a treasure trove of documents hidden in the attic of a vacant building in Gilpin Court.

The building once housed the Independent Order of St. Luke, a mutual aid society, and the documents provide more information about the organization and its noted leader, Maggie L. Walker, the pioneering civic leader who pushed black economic empowerment before her death in 1934.

Ever since the find, Heather A. Huyck of the College of William & Mary, has led a team of volunteers in conserving and cataloguing the 15,000 documents that her students found neatly packed in more than 30 boxes.

The documents range from bills and insurance documents to Mrs. Walker’s personal correspondence with people like NAACP leader W.E.B. DuBois and Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune.

The papers are expected to add fresh insight into the Order of St. Luke’s department store, newspaper and bank that Mrs. Walker created while presiding over the organization she led from near bankruptcy to prosperity. She was the first African-American woman to charter a bank.

Next week, with the city working to complete a monument to Mrs. Walker in Downtown, Dr. Huyck will join with the National Park Service and the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites in celebrating the completion of the preservation work.

The program will highlight the extraordinary collection and those who participated in the painstaking effort of sorting, protecting and digitizing the documents. It also will highlight the Stallings family that owns the building where the documents were found.

The invitation-only program is set for 10 a.m. Friday, March 10, at the historic Hippodrome Theater in the 500 block of North 2nd Street, according to Andrea Dekoter, chief of interpretation and education at the National Park Service’s Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site that includes Mrs. Walker’s former home in Jackson Ward.

While the NPS has hopes that the documents could end up at its site, Ms. Dekoter said “the final decision will be up to the Stallings family, which owns the documents.”

Wanda D. Stallings, a co-owner of the St. Luke Building with her mother, Margaret T. Stallings, said they have other plans.

Ms. Stallings said she appreciates the work Dr. Huyck and her team have done to protect and catalogue the documents, but she and her mother want the papers “to go to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which currently does not have anything about Maggie Walker.”

Through her attorney, Alexander Ayers, Ms. Stallings and her mother have requested that Dr. Huyck return the papers.

Dr. Huyck is a W&M research associate and adjunct history professor. She also is past president of the women’s history collaborative.

According to Mr. Ayers, Mrs. Stallings is the rightful owner of the documents and of the four-story landmark building at 900 St. James St., where the documents were stored.

Mrs. Stallings inherited the building and other properties following the death in 2000 of her husband, James Stallings. A major landowner in Jackson Ward and Gilpin Court, Mr. Stallings purchased the building in 1971 as the Order of St. Luke was dying, with hopes of one day restoring the building to use.