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The Big Gig celebrates the birthday of a legend.

History Repeats Itself


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Seventy years ago a Jackson Ward parade rerouted its path just to walk past Maggie L. Walker's house, where the ailing leader of black business waved to marchers from her second-story balcony window. This summer, The Big Gig is doing something similar.

Don't worry — Big Gig concerts and festivities continue at familiar haunts like Brown's Island and the James Center, but this year there's a new venue added to the list. On Sunday, July 15, a birthday celebration will commemorate the 134th birthday of Jackson Ward's own Maggie L. Walker, the first African-American woman bank president in the United States.

"All eyes were on that porch just to see her sitting up there," says 90-year-old historian Daniel Perkins Jr. about the day of the parade 70 years ago. Perkins was one of many young neighborhood boys who helped the wheelchair-confined Walker in and out of her chauffeured limousine for the generous gratuity of 25 cents.

"At the time, we didn't realize that we were a part of history," says Perkins. "But I wouldn't trade a million dollars for that experience. I've never heard anybody talk with more grace. Still I can almost hear her voice speaking."

It was anything but clear that Maggie L. Walker would grow up to be a prominent business woman and public speaker when she was born to a laundress in Jackson Ward's "Jail Alley." But due to hard work and a self-starting nature, Maggie L. Walker founded a newspaper and chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, establishing herself as the first black female bank president. In 1978, Maggie L. Walker's house at 110 1/2 Leigh Street was designated a National Historic Site to preserve the legacy of the woman who inspired African-Americans and women across the country.

"We want to put a spotlight on Maggie L. Walker and her house so that people will be encouraged to see what's in their own backyard," says Downtown Presents Executive Director Chris Risatti.

At the Maggie L. Walker Celebration, a four-block radius around the famous red brick home will be fenced off to make room for the local talent of Larry Bland, Johnny Peyton's Renaissance Band and the First African Baptist Singers.

Each band on tap has a special connection to Maggie L. Walker. Larry Bland, a 1971 graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School, returns to Richmond sans the Volunteer Choir to perform his trademark renditions of gospel in honor of the woman who is his alma mater's namesake.

"Celebrating Maggie Walker's birthday has a lot of meaning for me in returning home to Richmond," says Bland, who's back in Richmond after a 17-year stint in Northern Virginia. "A lot of people know the high school but don't know the history of the woman the building was named after."

Tuscan Jasper, director of Johnny Peyton's Renaissance band also has ties to the famously named high school. "Many moons ago, I was the band director at Maggie Walker High," says Jasper, whose band is famous for treating audiences to big band favorites like "April in Paris" and "Take the A-Train."

And the First African Baptist Singers come to the celebration directly from the very same church that Walker attended during her lifetime, the First African Baptist Church. The Singers will perform traditional choir songs for festival-goers.

Aside from the lavish musical spread being brought in, food and festivities will abound at the Maggie L. Walker celebration. The National Park Service will open Walker's home for guided tours where visitors can see her original furnishings, including a black baby grand piano and family photographs. The event will wind down when The Big Gig wheels out a giant birthday cake to honor the memory of a woman who not only merits the rerouting of parades, but inspires the celebration of the human spirit.


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