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.
"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."
Yesterday, in what turned out to be his last communication with The Sun, Dr. Banks wrote of his "concern that so many in our society, young and adult, are bombarded constantly with negativism, failure, cynicism and alienation. This situation, I believe, weighs very heavily and disproportionately on children and youths given the Zeitgeist or spirit of the times."
In his letter to a Sun editor, Dr. Banks encouraged the newspaper to "highlight the experiences and successes of young people who are making vital, substantive and inspirational gains in spite of societal turbulence, apathy and ennui."
In the early 1980s, Dr. Banks was instrumental in leading a predominantly black boycott of the Baltimore Sun after a series of articles appeared in The Evening Sun that dealt with single-parent families.
But harsh criticisms were not limited to the Supreme Court, Congress or the local newspaper.
In a recent interview, Dr. Banks ridiculed his boss, city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, for his unusually close relationship with the head of a private company hired to run several city schools.
Dr. Banks' wife said his prolific writing and strong opinions on education were fueled by "his care and concern for children. He believed in education. It was uppermost in his thoughts. He loved children."
Dr. Banks attended school in Norfolk, Va., received his undergraduate and master's degrees from Howard University in Washington and his doctorate in education from George Washington University, also in Washington.
He was a member of numerous organizations, including the National Council of History Standards and the NAACP. He taught Bible class at Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Washington.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Gayle Banks Jones of Bowie and Allison Banks Holmes of Upper Marlboro; and three grandchildren.
BANKS' LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
For close readers of The Sun during the past quarter of a century, Samuel L. Banks was as familiar a fixture at the newspaper as any of its regular staff writers. His missives to The Sun were unceasing; it was not unusual for two or three of his letters to be published in the newspaper each month. "In the past 22 years that I've been on this job, we've had more Sam Banks letters than any other letter writer by far," Joseph R. L. Sterne, The Sun's editorial page editor, said yesterday. "And yet, being Sam Banks, if we discarded a few of his letters, he would be quick to put on pressure to get his letters into the paper."
If Mr. Banks' writing was often verbose and more than a bit preachy, it was also dignified, passionate and occasionally caustic. Below, a selection from his voluminous correspondence with this newspaper:
May 17, 1995
The [Joe] Smith case has reverberations far beyond College Park. The larger issue concerns an almost veritable disregard in predominantly white NCAA-affiliated colleges for black student-athletes. These black youths are simply seen as gladiators, especially in football and basketball, whose athletic talents and abilities bring huge profits to the institutions.
April 30, 1995
Finally, I recall, as an undergraduate member of the debating team at Howard University, how the late Lewis Fenderson often cautioned us: "When you have the facts, argue the facts. When you don't have the facts, pound the table lustily."
Mr. Slepian's letter gave abundant evidence of the latter.
March 29, 1995
It is a national scandal that, 31 years after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, white males still make up 97 percent of senior managers in Fortune 1000 companies.
Feb. 26, 1995
The banal and wholly self-serving comments of Mr. Williams regarding his upbringing in South Carolina and the role of race represented a cruel and mindless transmogrification of truth and reality . . .
Jan. 6, 1995
The painting of graffiti outside the Knesh Israel Synagogue in Annapolis and a black-owned hair salon in Edgewater is a manifestation of a worrisome situation that goes far beyond the October Ku Klux Klan rally in Annapolis led by a group of rag-tag, venomous and obstreperous peddlers of hate, divisiveness and intolerance.
As has been true historically in our nation, the central problem remains the refusal of white Americans to accept the clear and present reality of racism.
Dec. 13, 1994
Congressional Republicans' so-called "Contract with America" signals an intensification of hostility, racism and indifference to the socio-economic and educational needs of racial minorities and the poor.
Nov. 2, 1994
The saga of Marion Barry is instructive and inspirational. He had fallen, through his visceral and worldly appetites, to the lowest point with his incarceration. Nonetheless, he paid his dues and bounced back. His incarnation provides a marvelous example to those in similar predicaments as to what can be achieved through faith in God, determination and staying power.