Fourteen months and 23 days before 14-year-old Emmet Louis Till was lynched in Money, Miss., accused of somehow offending a white woman, a prominent Black farmer and entrepreneur met a similar fate 135 miles away in Marion, a small Delta town on the eastern edge of Arkansas.
Till might have lived to celebrate his 79th birthday on July 25 had he not traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to see his uncle. Some say Isadore Banks, the 59-year-old Arkansan, had also been accused of messing with the wrong woman. Others say he was just too successful for a Black man in the Jim Crow South, a threat to the white establishment.
Till and Banks died violent, brutal deaths. They were victims of lynchings, which like the Confederate statues popping up in town squares across America at the time were meant to send a message: Black folks would never be equal to white folks. Never forget.
The story of Isadore Banks almost slipped through the cracks of history, hushed by the fear of retaliation, with constant reminders often strung up in trees or from utility poles that white supremacy was still the rule of law. It has been told occasionally through the years, but never quite like this.
Banks’ story is the subject of an excellent new podcast titled « Unfinished: Deep South, » painstakingly researched and deftly reported by Brooklyn-based Taylor Hom, a documentary filmmaker and writer, and her partner, print journalist Neil Shea, who set out to finally answer the 66-year-old question: Who lynched Isadore Banks?
Hom introduces the podcast in the first episode, published June 28: « In 1954, in a tiny Arkansas town on the Mississippi River, the hero for many was a man named Isadore Banks. He was well over 6 feet tall, weighed nearly 300 pounds. He was strong, quick and handsome. Isadore had served in World War I. He owned hundreds of acres of farmland, and he’d become really, really rich …
« This is the story of Isadore Banks. It’s a story about land, love and a very old kind of hatred. And it’s about how one African-American man’s legacy vanished when he was killed in a most American way. »
Banks shared nothing with the little boy in Mississippi other than race, birthdays in the same month, and their fates at the hands of white men. Banks had lived a full, successful life, amassing a small fortune with hundreds of acres of farmland, plantations, a restaurant, a cotton gin that catered to Black farmers, a hotel, a tavern, lots of employees, livestock and his own vehicles. He was a striking, handsome man, who according to a surviving son always wore khaki pants, a brown bomber jacket and a hat.
On June 8, 1954, three days after he didn’t come home to his wife, Alice, Banks’ truck, with the loaded shotgun he had taken to carrying and his jacket inside, was found in the woods next to a tree. Banks had been chained to that tree, mutilated and doused with gasoline and then set on fire, according to the coroner at the time. The coroner could not tell if Banks was dead before the fire was set or whether he was killed somewhere else and his body taken to the woods to burn.
Till’s funeral in Chicago drew some 40,000 people and made headlines worldwide. Banks’ death was not big news, with headlines in only a handful of papers, including some in Arkansas that picked up The Associated Press report of the death of a « prominent Negro. »
Although Banks’ killing certainly appeared to be a lynching, then Crittenden County Sheriff and Tax Assessor Cecil Goodwin refused to designate it as one, denying after a short investigation that the crime was racially motivated.
Then what was it? Why was the popular, respected, successful man so brutally murdered?
Hom and Shea spent 2 ½ years trying to find out, combing through moldy records in the basement of the Crittenden County Courthouse, only to find sections of them missing from the files. They poked around town and talked to the few survivors from an era that in some ways is not that different from the county today.
« People listened to Isadore Banks, looked up to him. His success made him a kind of senior statesman in his community, » Shea says in Episode 1.
Banks’ daughter Dorothy Williams, now in her 70s and living in St. Louis, talks openly with the podcasters, her voice filled with the pain of losing her father all those years ago. Williams was very young, but she remembers that tension had been building and the family had seen warning signs that something was brewing.
« They were killing … our livestock, our puppies, cats and dogs and all that kind of stuff. Anything that we possessed they got rid of little by little. They even sprayed our land so we couldn’t grow peas … That’s when Daddy put us on a trailer and sent us up here, » Williams recalls in the podcast.
After her mother died, Williams and her siblings were put in foster care. But she stayed put in St. Louis as an adult, raising a family that included her own daughter, Marcelina Maria, who now goes by Lena Williams. The elder Williams had never talked about what happened to her father or why she ended up in Missouri.
« I kept it to myself. Because I didn’t know who was up here that might want me and my family. So I always kept it to myself up until she [Lena] brought it out. I guess my daughter says, ‘It’s time for you to stop hiding now,' » she says in the podcast.
Lena Williams is a Black history buff who reads all she can on the subject. One day while looking through a book that her mother was using in a college course, she saw something.
« I was looking through it, some gruesome scenes in there, and there was one familiar one. I ran to my mother and said look at this, look at this, and my mother looked at it and she started screaming. ‘That’s my father, that’s my daddy, that’s my daddy.’ And I’m like, huh? She said, ‘That’s my daddy.’ And it was a picture of him, what they had done to him. And that’s how I found out about him, » Lena Williams says in the podcast.
In 2007, the podcasters report, the FBI compiled a list of unsolved murders, including lynchings, and Lena Williams saw a news story on TV. She took to Google and began an investigation that has become a lifelong project.
She says, « I would not rest until America, as they say, gives us our justice, closure, our land, our compensation for his land and his death. »
Lena Williams has traveled to Marion many times over the years, the podcast says, and she knows someone knows something, but a small Southern town can keep secrets.
« A lot of people have a lot to lose — land, money. A lot to lose. The same ones in power today were in power then. Whether it’s them or whether it’s the next generation, it’s the same ones. And they know it. And they know I know it. My grandfather was my hero and he died. He died and saved my mother so that I could live. And I’ll be doggone if I let him down now, » she says.
As in any true-crime podcast, there are quirky characters, rumored suspects, dramatic quotations and sound effects. The original music sets the perfect tone, with railroad sounds taking listeners back to a bustling era in Marion.
Hom and Shea introduce listeners to characters such as Rosalind O’Neal, who wasn’t born in Marion but moved there when she was young and now works at the Sultana Disaster Museum, which commemorates the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history (sultanadisaster.org).
O’Neal believes she knows who killed Banks, and she gave Hom and Shea their first lead to investigate.
The podcast also looks into rumors that Sheriff Goodwin had something to do with the lynching. After all, his widow, a teacher, died in 1999 and left $7 million that no one knew the couple had to a local church.
There’s also Willie Gammon, whose father was a friend and associate of Banks, who shares his own family’s tragic tales of intimidation. Gammon grew up listening to stories about Banks, and takes the podcasters to places in Marion that Banks once owned.
All in all, Hom and Shea, who lived in Memphis for a while and commuted to Crittenden County to investigate, say they were welcomed by the people of Marion and Crittenden County and those who knew anything shared it with them or could provide background freely shared it with them.
They did, however, face some resistance and slamming doors. One man they questioned said only, « I know it happened, but I think it needs to be rested. »
The dark secrets of a small Southern town, it seems, are often difficult — if not downright impossible — to bring into the light.
The 10 episodes of « Unfinished: Deep South » play like a true-crime podcast and keep the listener on edge and thoroughly hooked. Each episode is about 30 minutes long. (Episode 5 published Sunday. Listen to the entire podcast by subscribing to Stitcher Premium, which starts with a free trial.)
The podcast is co-produced by Stitcher’s Witness Docs division and playwright Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber’s Market Road Films.
We conducted an interview via email with Hom and Shea. Here is an edited version of that interview.
Q: Had you two ever visited Arkansas before coming here to cover the story? Where did you stay while here and what were your impressions of our state and, specifically, Marion and Crittenden County?
Hom: Neither of us had ever visited Arkansas, and when we came down to do fieldwork, we actually stayed in Memphis. From Memphis, we made daily trips to Crittenden County, and we came to think of the Delta as a sublime and beautiful place — rich with stories, haunted by them, alive with them. But we came to love Marion and its surroundings, and the people who live there. I think our appreciation of Crittenden’s history and the Delta’s beauty are two elements that don’t fully come across in the podcast, and that’s unfortunate. Our work in Arkansas opened us up to a whole new view of the South — its diversity and history, its eras of progress and backlash.
Q: Did you ever fear for your safety or were you met with any resistance other than from the people you called?
Shea: We never feared for our safety. We did meet a lot of resistance. A number of people shut doors in our faces, or hung up on us, or agreed to meet with us only to cancel at the last minute with no explanation. Occasionally people told us to be careful — told us that we were looking into a story that was still dangerous. And we felt that fear in others, especially older people. But we never experienced it ourselves.
Q: Do you two have any theories about what happened to all of Isadore’s money and land? I know the sheriff is one. Did you contact anyone at the Baptist church about the building and where the funds came from?
Hom: When we visited the Baptist Church, employees there told us they didn’t know anything about the money. We feel as though the most obvious explanation for what happened to Isadore’s wealth is that it was stolen by the county elites, however, we never found hard evidence of this — the kind of evidence that would hold up in a court of law. As anti-lynching advocate and journalist Ida B. Wells said, ‘Those who commit the murders, write the reports.’
Q: Did the family end up with any mementos other than the few pictures we’ve seen?
Hom: No. As far as we’ve been able to find, not much has survived beyond land records and other documents, and a single photograph. According to members of the family, Isadore’s older daughter, Muriel, likely ended up with whatever material items were left. She had no children, and we weren’t able to track down anyone who might have inherited those things.
Q: What became of Alice? Is she buried near Isadore or somewhere out of state, or do you know?
Shea: Alice moved to Memphis and took work as a housekeeper. She died a year later in 1955, of a stroke.
Q: I feel like this could become a whole series of podcasts, what with thousands of lynchings on record. Of course, the lack of records on slaves and/or poor Black people would probably make it next to impossible to research. Are you all considering other such cases?
Shea: We completely agree. This sort of investigation and recovery should be done for every lynching case. While in many instances investigators probably won’t be able to find a great deal of material, we believe — after our own experience — that there’s far more to be uncovered.
Hom: While we’re not considering any similar investigations at this point, we are very interested in exploring models that are more sustainable. We’ve considered creating curriculums that would allow student journalists to take on cases during their coursework. Likewise, local and national media outlets might be able to assign reporters to cover these cases as long-term feature projects.
Q: Did you get the impression from Dorothy and other family members that after 66 years, they had a clearer picture of what had happened to Isadore and why?
Hom: I think some of the family members got a better idea of what happened to Isadore, and of who he was (some relatives had no idea Isadore had been so successful; and others thought he was a sharecropper). But I think Dorothy found more value came in the fact that her father’s story and person are finally being seen and recognized.
Q: Rosalyn was my favorite. Have you all stayed in touch and was she as much of a character as she seemed?
Hom and Shea: Rosalind O’Neal and Willie Gammon were two of the most helpful local sources in our work. They both gave generously of their time and contacts, and they were infinitely patient with our questions. One of our regrets is that not all of the stories they shared — including more of their personal stories — made it into the pod.
Q: I notice « Unfinished » is used by other podcasts as well. Is this one of a series from the production company?
Shea: Yes. Deep South is the first season of the ‘Unfinished’ series by Witness Docs at Stitcher. Season 2, which deals with Mormon fundamentalism in the Southwest, will be hosted and produced by a different team. Their podcast will drop sometime later this year.
A newspaper clipping from the Arkansas Democrat on June 9, 1954, shows The Associated Press article about the lynching of Isadore Banks.
‘Unfinished: Deep South’
Listen to the podcast trailer here:
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