Isadore Banks

Age 59

A wealthy Black landowner who gave back to the community

Marion, Arkansas

June 8, 1954

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Isadore Banks, 59, was a WWI veteran, businessman and landowner in Arkansas who helped bring electricity to the town of Marion and its surrounding area. A wealthy Black man, Banks was known to donate books and other materials to local schools. He also founded a cotton ginning business to support other Black farmers.

According to his wife, Banks left home to pay some farmworkers on June 4, 1954, and never returned. Four days later, his body was discovered shot and burned beyond recognition, chained to a tree. An empty fuel can, a set of keys and some change lay near the corpse. Banks’ truck also was nearby, its ignition turned on and the battery dead.

Initial Investigation

A local farmer found Banks’ remains while searching a wooded area he said Banks often visited, according to a Department of Justice memo about the case. The memo also said Banks’ murder received substantial publicity due to its brutality and his standing in the community. Banks owned hundreds of acres of land, leasing much of it to tenants.

Rumors circulated about the motive. Some speculated that Banks had refused to sell land to white men, or that he had beaten a white man who courted his oldest daughter. Others suggested he had angered white people in the area by having affairs, including with white women. Whatever the case, authorities said the murder likely involved more than one person, because Banks weighed nearly 300 pounds, and his body would have been difficult to move, The Chicago Defender reported in 1954.

Unhappy with how local law enforcement was handling the investigation, an NAACP lawyer from Arkansas contacted the FBI, according to a 1954 FBI memo to the Department of Justice. The FBI wrote that, at the time, it was not considering an investigation because “it did not appear that there was a violation of the Federal Statute over which this Bureau had jurisdiction.”

Despite a $1,000 reward offered by local Black businessmen and citizens, the case went unsolved. In a report several months after the murder, the civil rights activist Robert L. Carter said that “terror and severe intimidation” had spread through the local Black community, exacerbated by the belief that others had been “marked for the Banks treatment.”

In a 2010 interview, Julian Fogleman, who was the Marion city attorney when Banks died, said there was scant local investigation because no one came forward with information. 

Till Act Status

The FBI opened an investigation into Banks’ death in 2007, based on media coverage of the decades-old case. The FBI tried to obtain results from the local investigation but learned the files had been lost in a flood due to a sewer backup in the 1970s, according to the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department. Likewise, in apparent accordance with federal records-keeping policy, the original FBI file had been destroyed in 1992.  

The FBI interviewed law enforcement officers, as well as Banks’ relatives, but found that people who might have had direct information about the murder had since died

The investigation closed after five years, in 2012. “Despite extensive efforts, no subjects have been identified,” the Department of Justice wrote in a memo closing the file. “Because of the destruction of the FBI and local investigative files, the lack of any known living witnesses, the various unsubstantiated theories of motive, including insufficient evidence that the victim’s death was in fact racially motivated, there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation will lead to a prosecutable case.”

About the Project

This multiplatform investigation draws upon more than two years of reporting, thousands of documents and dozens of first-hand interviews. FRONTLINE spoke to family and friends of the victims, and witnesses, some of whom had never been interviewed; current and former Justice Department officials and FBI agents, state and local law enforcement; lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and investigative journalists, to explore the Department of Justice’s reopening of civil rights-era cold cases under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

In addition to an examination of the federal effort, the project features the first comprehensive, interactive list of all those whose cases were reopened by the Department of Justice. Today, the list stands at 151 names. Among the victims: voting rights advocates, veterans, Louisville’s first female prosecutor, business owners, mothers, fathers, and children.

The project consists of a web-based interactive experience, serialized podcast, a touring augmented-reality exhibit, documentary and companion education curriculum for high schools and universities.

A project like Un(re)solved would not be possible without the historic and contemporary contributions of universities, civil rights groups, and the press, particularly the Black press, who have ensured the ongoing public record of racist violence in the United States. To pay homage to these groups, the web interactive begins with a quote from journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells, one of the first to document with precision the horrors of racial terror in America. “The way to right wrongs,” she wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

At the outset of the project, FRONTLINE forged a relationship with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), bringing them on as an academic partner. Launched in 2007 by Distinguished Law Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ is a mission-driven program of interdisciplinary teaching, research and policy analysis on race, history, and criminal justice. Their work has expanded beyond the names on the Justice Department’s list, archiving documents in over 1,000 cases of racially motivated homicides.

With support from the CRRJ, FRONTLINE reporters gathered what could be known about the individuals on the list, conducting interviews with family, friends and witnesses, delving into newspaper archives and gathering documentation including headstone applications, draft cards and archival photographs.

At the heart of the project has been a drive to center the voices of the families of those on the list. FRONTLINE partnered with StoryCorps to record nearly two dozen oral histories with victims’ next of kin, which are featured both in the web-based interactive and traveling AR exhibit. These oral histories will also be archived in the National Library of Congress.

To lead the creative vision for the web experience and installation, FRONTLINE partnered with Ado Ato Pictures, a premier mixed reality studio founded by artist, filmmaker, and technologist Tamara Shogaolu.

Shogaolu rooted the visuals in the powerful symbolism of trees. In the United States, trees evoke the ideal of liberty, but also speak to an oppressive history of racially motivated violence. In Persian myth, trees are humanity’s ancestors, while in Toraja, Indonesia, they serve as sacred burial sites.

“I was really inspired by looking at the role of the tree as a symbol in American history” Shogaolu said. “It’s been looked at as a symbol of freedom, we look at it as a connector between generations, and also there’s the association of trees with racial terror.” When designing the creative vision for Un(re)solved Shogaolu wondered whether she might be able to reclaim the symbol of the tree. “As a person of color, we’re often terrified of being in isolated places in the woods. And I thought it was kind of crazy that there are natural environments that instinctually give great fear because of this connection with racial terror and I wanted to reclaim that — to turn these into beautiful spaces.”

Un(re)solved weaves imagery of trees, which also recall family ties, into patterns and textures from the American tradition of quilting. Among enslaved African Americans forbidden to read or write, quilts provided an important space to document family stories. Today, quilting remains a creative outlet rich with story and tradition for many American communities.

We invite you to enter this forest of quilted memories — a testimony to the lives of these individuals, and the multi-generational impact of their untimely, unjust loss.

(Credits to come)