Samuel Banks, champion of black history, dies

July 20, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Samuel L. Banks, a Baltimore educator who was a connoisseur of the English language and a nationally known champion of African-American history, died suddenly yesterday at his home in Prince George's County. He was 64.

Dr. Banks was a teacher and administrator for 36 years, orchestrating one of the nation's first Afro-centric social studies curricula in city schools more than 20 years ago.

A history and social studies teacher who taught future mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at City College during the 1960s, Dr. Banks became a school administrator and national leader at writing history and social studies curricula.

A prolific writer -- particularly for The Sun, The Evening Sun and the Afro-American -- Dr. Banks excoriated the U.S. Supreme Court for its rulings against affirmative action and flayed the Republican-dominated Congress for what he believed was a racially biased "Contract with America."

In his writings, he was fond of using French phrases and quoting abolitionist-writer Frederick Douglass. He often sent readers to a dictionary to look up words. He used the word "Zeitgeist" in a July 14 letter to a Sun editor that arrived on the day of Dr. Banks' death.

Dr. Banks died yesterday morning after a routine day of work and an evening at home the day before, said his wife of 38 years, Elizabeth.

As she was waking up, Mrs. Banks said, she heard her husband take two heavy breaths and heard no breathing after that. She said she did not know the cause of death.

The news of Dr. Banks' death traveled quickly and with sadness through the Baltimore Education Department's North Avenue headquarters yesterday.

"It was awfully hard to break the news," said Mary Nicholsonne, associate superintendent for instruction, who informed the staff of the school system's department of compensatory and funded programs, which Dr. Banks directed.

"I asked them to carry on the legacy and think of all the contributions he made," she said.

Delores Powell, a secretary whose desk sits outside Dr. Banks' office, remembered him as a "sweet, gentle man" who took time out from his busy schedule to write recommendation letters to help her daughter get a college scholarship.

"It's a shock to everybody," she said. "I don't know a better word, but Dr. Banks would have a better word."

'A wise leader'

Dr. Banks was "a wise leader in the school system and in the city of Baltimore," said Martin Gould, assistant superintendent for family and student support services. "He was a warm and supportive colleague from the first day I came on board here."

On Tuesday, said Dr. Gould, Dr. Banks appeared in good health, physically and mentally as he "consumed a 150-page document in a matter of hours" before discussing it in detail.

Mayor Schmoke, in a written statement, called Dr. Banks, "a leader in promoting multicultural education long before it became a fashionable topic for public discussion.

"I was a student of his at City College and through the years I found him to be a tough advocate with a kind heart, a person who will be greatly missed by his community," said Mr. Schmoke.

Dr. Banks had many other admirers as well.

"The world is a much lesser place without Dr. Banks," said Margie Ashe, a homemaker and writer who became Dr. Banks' friend through the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. "Dr. Banks was a gentleman. He was one of the most considerate human beings I have ever met."

The Woodlawn resident said she and Dr. Banks also had a mutual love for words.

"One of my major accomplishments was that I found a four-letter word that Dr. Banks didn't know. It was 'limn' which means to outline or describe something. I found it in a crossword puzzle. After I finally worked it out, I said, 'Did you know this one, Sam?' and he said no. He was famous for knowing all the words in the dictionary and using them."

Thousands of Marylanders who never met Dr. Banks knew him through his articles and letters to the editor of The Sun and The Evening Sun. Joseph R. L. Sterne, Sun editorial page editor, estimated that Dr. Banks wrote more letters to the editor than any other contributor during the last two decades.

Many topics

"He's been one of our most dedicated letter writers. His letters often were couched in formal language that led to some kinds of parody but also rang with a certain kind of dignity," said Mr. Sterne.

In his letters to the editor, Dr. Banks took on many topics -- most dealing with the inequities he perceived toward blacks. For instance, in a letter that appeared in Saturday's paper, he criticized the Supreme Court decision against minority set-asides, saying the court "has placed its judicial imprimatur in a resuscitation of separate but unequal treatment for black citizens."

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