Willette Rutherford (Scrap) Banks, teacher and university administrator, was born on August 8, 1881, in Hartwell, Georgia, the second of thirteen children of J. M. and Laura Banks. J. M. Banks was a Georgia populist and founder of the Colored Zion Elementary School at Hartwell, which Willette attended as a youth. The younger Banks attended Atlanta University, where he met the two most abiding influences on his life–W. E. B. DuBois, his role model, and Glovina Virginia Perry, his wife and cultural mentor.
When Banks graduated in 1909, President E. T. Ware of Atlanta University recommended him for a teaching position at Fort Valley Normal and Industrial Institute in Georgia, and later, in 1912, for a principalship at Kowiliga Community School in Elmore County, Alabama. Colored Methodist Episcopal Church bishop R. A. Carter offered Banks the presidency of Texas College at Tyler in May 1915. At the end of his tenure in 1926 Banks had recruited the second largest student body in a Texas Black college and had gained a reputation as a builder and as a master of the difficult craft of financing church-related education.
As principal at Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University, a part of the Texas A&M University System), Banks was challenged by the opportunity to test his skill at running a minority institution governed by Whites. He welcomed the reputed "unsavory" post as a "divine call." As an administrator he used the "North-South pivot," a combination of support from private philanthropy with the assistance of the state Interscholastic League of Colored Schools and the federal extension service, to achieve many of his goals, including the construction of new buildings on the campus. In the spring of 1930 he revived the idea of DuBois's Atlanta Conferences. With the aid of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and the General Education Board, Banks founded an ongoing Texas "Educational Conference."
In the late 1930s he came under criticism from the leaders of Black denominational colleges and White liberals for supporting the establishment of a graduate school at Prairie View. His opponents supported out-of-state aid for Black students to attend schools in the North and emphasized the need of state Black colleges to strengthen their undergraduate programs before expanding. Texas A&M president Walton, however, concerned that out-of-state aid was too heavily tainted by the desire to keep Blacks from applying to White institutions, wanted to set up a "separate but equal" graduate school for Blacks in Texas. Walton offered Banks a two-year fund of $9,000 a year to start the school. Banks opened his graduate school in June 1938 with thirty-five students and E. M. Morris as dean. By Banks's rationale, he had settled all doubts at Texas A&M about his public acceptance of segregation. In 1938 the United States Supreme Court outlawed out-of-state aid and regional Black schools in Lloyd Gaines v. University of Missouri. As a result, the leaders of state-supported Black colleges soon began accepting money for graduate programs, as Banks had done.
During World War II Banks was influenced by wartime race riots, by Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma (1944) and Rayford Logan's What the Negro Wants (1944), by the Supreme Court case Smith v. Allwright (1944), and by W. E. B. DuBois's call for Black colleges to devise methods to emancipate Blacks through cooperative research. Banks successfully used his "North-South pivot" to influence the Forty-ninth Texas Legislature, which authorized the Texas A&M board to establish courses at Prairie View in law, engineering, pharmacy, and journalism. The courses were to be "substantially equivalent" to those offered at the University of Texas. Banks thus defeated the faction led by Joseph J. Rhoads, president of Bishop College, which favored a new state-supported liberal arts college for Blacks. Banks then went over the heads of Texas A&M officials, who failed to back the legislative mandate, with a request to the legislature for funds. He received his money from the legislature, but as he had been warned by a Texas A&M dean, his retirement was announced in the spring of 1946. He then became the vice chairman of the board of regents of Texas Southern University and served on the boards of Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Paine College. He died on October 16, 1969, in Corsicana, and was buried at Memorial Park in Prairie View.