Charles Banks was the second of four children born to former slaves Daniel A. Banks, a Clarksdale, Mississippi, farmer, and his wife, Sallie Ann, a housekeeper and cook. Charles was born on the property of John and Eliza Clark, members of the town’s most prominent white family and namesake. Charles received his early education in the Coahoma County school system before enrolling at Rust University (now Rust College) in Holly Springs from 1887 to 1890, though he apparently left without graduating. Around the same time, he opened a Banks and Bro., a Clarksdale mercantile business that became so successful that some observers believed it a credit to all people in Clarksdale. According to one Banks contemporary, “He always liked the jingle and clink of the dollars of commerce and their sound is as pleasing to [his] ears as the rhapsody of a Beethoven sonata.”
In 1893, at the age of twenty, Banks married Trenna Ophelia Booze of Natchez, who had attended Natchez Baptist College and then worked as a schoolteacher. Her peers considered her highly refined and intelligent, and she became a leader among the Magnolia State’s black women.
In 1900 Charles Banks traveled to Boston to attend the first meeting of the National Negro Business League, where he met Booker T. Washington, the organization’s founder. Three years later, inspired by the stories of business success he heard at the meeting, Banks moved about twenty miles from Clarksdale to Mound Bayou, an all-black town founded by Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousins, Benjamin T. Green and Joshua P. T. Montgomery, in 1887. Reportedly the country’s largest all-black town, Mound Bayou became a beacon of hope for blacks all over the state. It was self-sufficient, with its own drugstores, restaurants, post office, newspaper, cotton oil mill, physicians, attorneys, and undertakers. Banks then founded the Bank of Mound Bayou and soon surpassed Isaiah Montgomery as the town’s leading citizen. Unlike many African Americans who moved away from the Deep South, Banks stayed in Mississippi during the height of Jim Crow terror.
Elected third vice president of the National Negro Business League in 1903, Banks rose to the position of first vice president in 1907, second in command only to Washington. Banks founded the Mississippi Negro Business League in 1905 (the first and reputedly the strongest state affiliate of the national organization); assisted in starting up dozens of black-owned businesses; and formed alliances with professionals, farmers, educators, and ministers. By 1910 he was considered Mississippi’s most powerful black leader.
Banks also promoted several of Washington’s forays into Mississippi and acted as the educator’s eyes and ears in the state. In return for Banks’s assistance, Washington provided political patronage and ensured that Banks had access to media, white philanthropy, and expertise from other members of the Tuskegee machine.
Banks used his influence (along with Washington’s endorsement) to induce steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to establish a Carnegie Library in Mound Bayou. Banks also worked to secure white largesse from numerous other philanthropic sources, including the General Education Board, the Rosenwald Fund, and the Jeanes Fund. Although Banks believed in the philosophy of industrial education, he supported normal school training just as vigorously. He secured funds for Benjamin F. Ousley’s Mound Bayou Normal and Industrial Institute, one of the best normal schools in the Delta.
Although he never ran for elected office, Banks continuously involved himself in national, state, and local politics. In 1890 he received an appointment as census enumerator for his Clarksdale district. A decade later US secretary of the interior Ethan A. Hitchcock appointed Banks as census supervisor for the Third District of Mississippi. Banks served as a member of the state executive committee for the Republican Party and in 1904 represented the Third District as a delegate to the Republican National Convention; he also served as a delegate at large to the Republican conventions of 1908 and 1912. Banks personally met with Pres. Theodore Roosevelt and Pres. William H. Taft on several occasions in Washington, D.C.
Banks was active in numerous fraternal, religious, civic, and educational organizations and institutions. He served as a trustee at Ohio’s Wilberforce College and for fifteen years was a delegate to the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He also participated with the Knights of Pythias, the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Negro Bankers Association of Mississippi, and the National Negro Bankers Association.
But Banks concentrated most of his efforts on business and economic development. In My Larger Education (1911), Washington described Banks as “the most influential businessman in the United States.” Although Mississippi had twelve black-owned financial institutions, Washington called Banks “the state’s leading Negro Banker.” By 1911 he served as director of two insurance companies; general manager of the Mound Bayou Cotton Oil Mill; and owner of a cotton brokerage company, a blacksmith shop, and a laundry. He also formed a partnership with the local black undertaker, John W. Francis, that dealt in land speculation, building supplies, lumber sales, and other mercantile ventures. By 1912 Banks had an estimated net worth of one hundred thousand dollars, and he wrote that he provided hundreds of jobs for black people in and around Mound Bayou.
The Bank of Mound Bayou remained one of Banks’s favorite business ventures, and as the primary source of loans for the town, the bank gave him a tremendous amount of power. In addition, the establishment of the Bank of Mound Bayou forced white bankers to offer more competitive interest rates and to offer better treatment to their black customers.
Banks’s most ambitious business venture was the Mound Bayou Oil Mill and Manufacturing Company. The plant was capitalized at one hundred thousand dollars, “the largest thing of the kind ever undertaken by Negro people.” It manufactured cotton meal, cotton oil, fertilizing substances, and other by-products from cottonseed. The mill generated $12,600 during its first season of operations, but the plant’s lessee, Benjamin B. Harvey, a white businessman from Memphis, reneged on his contract with Banks and stole money from the mill. After a court battle that lasted several years, Banks emerged victorious, but since the mill had been out of operation during that time, its financial woes continued and even worsened. Nevertheless, Banks eventually got the oil mill out of debt and back to making a profit.
These endeavors earned Banks the nickname the “Wizard of Mound Bayou.” “The most public-spirited citizen in the history of Mississippi,” Banks died from food poisoning in Memphis, Tennessee, on 18 October 1923.
- Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (1983)
- Janet Sharp Hermann, The Pursuit of a Dream (1981)
- David H. Jackson Jr., A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi (2002)
- David H. Jackson Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2000)
- Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1989)