Isadore Banks

The 1954 lynching of Marion, Arkansas business owner Isadore Banks has been shrouded in mystery. Through the ‘Unfinished: Deep South’ podcast, filmmaker Taylor Hom and journalist Neil Shea attempt to get answers. Their search also brings them to St. Louis. In this family photo, Banks is pictured with daughter Muriel.

Isadore Banks was as much of a mogul as a Black man could be in the Jim Crow South. He was rumored to have owned 1,000 acres of land in Marion, Arkansas in addition to having distinction as a World War I veteran, business owner and community leader. With a level of respect that was said to have even trickled into the white community, Banks existed as an anomaly within the separate and unequal experiences of Black people in Marion.

Then, in 1954 – at the height of his influence – Banks was chained to a tree and set on fire. According to several sources, his body remained tied to the tree for days.

In the documentary podcast series “Unfinished: Deep South,” filmmaker Taylor Hom and journalist Neil Shea dive in to get to the bottom of the who, what and why.

“People were afraid – they were scared to death,” his son, Jim Banks told Hom and Shea. “I could actually feel the fear of others around me. It was a very frightening situation to watch how people reacted to that.”

His life was stolen, and so was the inheritance that was his children’s birthright.

“All records of his land was destroyed. It was like he had nothing,” Jim Banks said. “He had no land. He had no property. It was as if everything disappeared. There was no land, there was no money. Nothing. It was as if it had never existed.”

The series is presented by Market Road Films, the production company of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and Emmy and PGA Award-winning film director Tony Gerber.  The story also includes ties to St. Louis.

As Hom and Shea dive into their winding narrative that adds context and details surrounding the mystery behind this particular horrendous crime, they reveal intersecting acts of racial terror and systemic abuse while exploring often ignored elements of the generational impact of a lynching. They even breakdown the history of lynching in an episode entitled “A Very American Crime.” The podcast series debuted June 10. The entire season featuring Banks’ story is currently available on Stitcher.com.

Taylor Hom explains that through her research and telling of the Banks’ story, that she and Shea realized that lynching goes beyond the tragedy of the death of the victim.

“We see this over and over again in the south. You can call it ‘the lynching effect,’” Hom said. “Because a lynching isn’t just about murder. It’s about trying to erase someone. And it goes beyond money or land. In Isadore’s case, the erasure was so complete that for years some of his relatives didn’t even know he existed.”

It’s an erasure that takes place that racial terrorists methodically and deliberately carry out to ensure that the legacy of trauma continues for generations after the act itself among the victim’s families. And in the same breath, there are residual fringe benefits for those who engage in such unspeakable acts that reach far beyond protecting the white power dynamic.

A living legacy in St. Louis

The podcast shares the experience of St. Louis native Marcelina Williams and her mother Dorothy Williams -a demonstration of the irreparable fracture caused by a lynching– along with a continuum of trauma that remains more than 65 years after Banks’ life was stolen.

Marcelina learned about her grandfather when her mother was attending St. Louis Community College – Forest Park. 

“She had her Black History book out. I loved Black history,” Marcelina told Hom and Shea. “I got her book and I was looking through it. There were some gruesome images [of lynchings] in the book.”

The picture of what had happened to Isadore Banks was so tragically compelling, Marcelina went to show it to her mother.

“That’s my daddy,” Dorothy screamed. “That’s my daddy!”

Despite the openness they shared as mother and daughter, Marcelina was an adult before Dorothy would discuss the circumstances surrounding her father’s murder.

“I kept it to myself, because I didn’t know who was up here that might harm me and my family,” she said.

Dorothy was five years old when her father paid someone to secretly transport her and her mother from Marion to St. Louis. Perhaps he knew they were in danger. She was never given the opportunity to ask. He was lynched shortly after she and her mother arrived.

Due to his murder, Dorothy experienced a descent from affluence to abject poverty.

“They took our life when they took away my daddy,” Dorothy said. “We were poor little kids who didn’t have food. You know how they talked about welfare kids back then. They laughed at ‘em, threw rocks at ‘em, made fun of ‘em.  That’s how they did us.”

As an adult, after seeing her grandfather’s name among a scroll of victims of unsolved murders during the Civil Rights era in 2007, Marcelina vowed to ensure that her grandfather’s legacy is restored. She has been relentless in her pursuit.

“I will not rest until America gives us our justice, closure and compensation for his death,” Marcelina said during a ceremony honoring Banks for his service to the U.S. Army more than 50 years after his untimely death. “My grandfather was my hero. He died and saved my mother, so that I could live. And I’ll be doggone if I let him down now.”

The full series of “Unfinished: Deep South,” was created and reported by filmmaker Taylor Hom and journalist Neil Shea. It can be heard at https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/unfinished-podcast

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