Melvin James Banks, African-American historian and educator, was born on May 17, 1903, in Montgomery, Alabama. He graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Howard University of Washington, D.C., and later received a Ph.D. from Syracuse University from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (1963). He also studied at the University of Colorado on a fellowship. Banks wrote his master’s thesis on “The Coastwise Slave Trade,” and his dissertation was titled “The Pursuit of Equality: The Movement for First Class Citizenship among Negroes in Texas, 1920–1950.”
After graduating from Howard University, Banks moved to Dallas in the 1920s to teach social sciences at Booker T. Washington High School. He also taught the first course in black history there. Banks joined the faculty of Bishop College, a small black college located in Marshall, Texas, in 1929. That institution had recently appointed Joseph J. Rhoads as its first African-American president. Banks served as dean of Bishop College for many years. When the school moved to Dallas in 1961, he was already chairman of the Division of Social Sciences. After fifty-one years of tenure, he had served in almost every administrative capacity at Bishop College in addition to his teaching duties. He also established the Department of Criminal Justice there and was chairman of the department. Banks served as the chairman of the college’s Centennial Committee and was also chief historian.
Banks was a strong proponent regarding the teaching of black history as well as the push for civil rights. Active in civic affairs, he was a longtime supporter of the Moorland branch of the YMCA. He was also active in the Baptist Church. He received many honors and awards for his long-term contribution to education. In 1972 he was honored with the Howard University’s Alumni Federation distinguished service award for “a long and distinguished career devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, higher education, human relations, and community advance.” At the spring 1979 commencement he received an honorary doctor of humanities from Bishop College.
Banks was married to Dorothy Beatrice Goodspeed around 1940 and had a son named Ronaldo Johnson. He died of natural causes at the age of seventy-eight on January 29, 1981, in Dallas. Banks was buried at Rose Hill Gardens Cemetery in Marshall, Texas.