Henry Banks pushes for cultural understanding in the Twin Ports

Henry Banks stands on a city sidewalk looking down at a small plaque. He is lost in thought, standing all alone as the wind blows by. Banks looks up, and something catches his eye.

Across the street stands a vacant lot owned by the Lamar Advertising Company, which he is drawn to. It was this empty lot that made Banks realize that the plaque was not enough to commemorate the three men who were lynched in Duluth. It was at this moment that the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was born.

"People were content with the plaque in the sidewalk," said Banks, who moved to Duluth from Kansas in the '80s. "I wasn't."

Banks said Duluth in the 1980s was much different than it is today because of the wide cultural gap that existed between white people and people of color. He recalls  one event that took place in the city's past that many in the black community were talking about at the time.

"We knew about it as students," said Banks, who studied at the University of Minnesota Duluth for four years, majoring in political science and psychology.

Banks is referring to the infamous lynching that occurred in Duluth in the 1920s. Three black men were accused of raping a woman and were subjected to a mob trial, found guilty and hanged on a lamppost. The men were Issac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson.

"I had to do something about it," Banks said.

Banks said that the event was something that wasn't really discussed, except in the black community. He remembers that there were two African-American elders that related the story to college students.

In June 2000, there was a candlelight vigil to remember Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. Banks remembers that night and how rainy it was.

"The candles were fading in and out," Banks said.

The vigil occurred after Heidi Bakk-Hansen's article "Duluth's Lingering Shame" was published in the now-defunct newspaper, the Duluth Ripsaw. In the article, Bakk-Hansen exposed this forgotten lynching, questioning why it had been so lost in time. Banks met Bakk-Hansen at his shop, which was a drop-off point for the newspaper.

"She said she had heard about me, about my work," Banks said.

After talking with Bakk-Hansen, Banks helped start a grassroots committee of people who were interested in remembering the three men.

Like Banks, Catherine Ostos was one of the founding chair members of the committee who remembers those days. She also remembers the vigil, saying it was a wonderful night with people singing, coming together as a community and playing guitars in the rain.

"My biggest vision at the time was a plaque," Ostos said.

Ostos described Banks as being quite driven. She said that he was determined in his pursuit of the memorial and that the whole time he "had seen something bigger."

"He really wanted to capitalize on the energy that was there that night," Ostos said about the 2000 vigil.

It was Banks' dissatisfaction with the plaque that led him to the vacant lot owned by Lamar Advertising. Once he saw that lot, Banks knew a plaque could never be enough, and he was now thinking of a full-fledged memorial.

Bank's drive for cultural understanding continues with the radio show that he runs out of the University of Wisconsin Superior. Called "People of Color with Henry Banks," the show focuses on both local and international issues.

During a recent show, on Oct. 18, Banks talked about tackling the issue of U.S. involvement in Honduras and its negative effects on the indigenous people. Banks said that the idea for the radio show came, quite literally, from a dream.

"In that dream I laid out how the format was going to be," he said.

Banks said that he literally woke up and called the station. After a few meetings, "People of Color with Henry Banks" was born.

The Oct. 18 show was unique because Banks had a guest, Tomas Gómez Membreño, from Honduras. Membreño, an indigenous Honduran, gave insight on the issues taking place there. Membreño was accompanied by an interpreter, Riehl O'Malley and Dr. Lyn Clark Pegg from the non-profit organization Witness for Peace, which arranged for Membreño's travel to the U.S.

The show was very clearly focused on the issues at hand as Banks quickly moved through each question after Membreño was finished responding and O'Malley interpreted. Banks nodded slowly as others were talking and even light-heartedly chuckled when O'Malley struggled for a moment to find the right words.

Banks said that he has been running the show for several years. His devotion to social issues can be seen not only in this show but also in the amount of time he spent creating the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. Bob Grytdahl, the interim human rights officer for the city of Duluth's Human Rights Office, remembers how Banks drove the memorial forward.

"He just kept the idea alive so that it continued to evolve," Grytdahl said.

Grytdahl said that "People of Color with Henry Banks" is really the opposite of most radio shows.

"They bring out the point," Grytdahl said. "They bring out the issues."

Ostos points directly to Banks as being "meticulous" and determined. She and Grytdahl both credit Banks with driving the memorial along, breathing life into it and making it what it is today.

"We've come a long way," Ostos said.

As for Banks, he shows no signs of slowing down or abandoning his pursuit of cultural justice. The show on Oct. 18 was the indication that Bank's devotion to the issues that affect people of color has never been greater.

"The world's not as big as we think it is," Banks said during the show.

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