Maggie Walker was a pioneer. As an African-American businesswoman and leader in early 20th-century Richmond, Virginia, her work has long been celebrated and studied by historians across the country – including researchers at William & Mary. Her home in the Jackson Ward section of Richmond has been designated a National Historic Site, operated by the National Park Service. On Sunday, Walker’s great-grandson, Johnny Mickens ’14, will graduate from the university with a degree, appropriately enough, in accounting.
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Almost five years ago, a half-dozen W&M students made a startling discovery in the attic of Richmond’s St. Luke Hall – 31 boxes of documents and photos, long thought lost, relating to Walker’s life. The boxes were transported to the university, where Adjunct Associate Professor of History Heather Huyck has supervised the inspection and cataloguing of more than 12,000 pieces.
Mickens took a brief turn working under Huyck, thereby having the opportunity to go through his famous great-grandmother’s possessions.
“I wore the gloves and mask and went through some boxes of materials,” he said. “I didn’t get to do a whole lot with it because of class conflicts. At the time I was more active with the National Park site and the Maggie Walker house.”
Mickens said that his family has been very active in preserving and promoting the memory of Walker. Both of his parents have been involved with Maggie Walker Historical Foundation, coordinating birthday celebrations and participating in a movement to erect a statue of Walker near her home in downtown Richmond.
Through the years, Mickens has even accepted a couple of awards on her behalf.
“We’ve been very aware of our family history,” he said, “and extremely proud of it.”
During his time at William & Mary, Mickens not only continued to help his family preserve that history, but he also became very active on campus.
Mickens felt so comfortable at W&M that within weeks of his enrollment he started giving campus tours to prospective students.
“I was just trying to promote the school and to convince other people to come here,” he said. “It always felt right to me. I didn’t have any problems adjusting or any homesick issues. I hit the ground running.”
He served as a member of the senior class gift committee, the Consulting Club, the Sports Business Club, the NAACP and the African-American Male Coalition. He spent a semester studying at the American Business School in Paris and two summers interning at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond.
One of the groups that gave him the most satisfaction, Mickens said, was the African-American Male Coalition. It enabled him to interact with black males on campus he might not otherwise have had the chance to meet. One of the group’s projects involved mentoring at-risk students for two hours a week at Berkeley Middle School in Williamsburg.
“Some of the students we’ve worked with have really made huge strides in terms of academic success and behavior,” he said. “Some of them are almost unrecognizable, which has been really fulfilling.”
Mickens has nothing but good things to say about W&M, a sentiment he has maintained since spending a weekend here during high school.
“William & Mary was my top choice … the people were really warm and welcoming,” he said. “At other places, people were like ‘Come here, it’ll be fun.’ I got the feeling they were a little less than sincere. Here, it felt very warm and open. (After that weekend) I signed the commitment form and haven’t looked back since.”