SAMUEL (SAM) G. BANKS
The following interview was conducted on April 21, 2016 by David Robbins, a graduate student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellows’ Legends and Legacies Project, a project intended to preserve the histories of prominent Virginia art educators for posterity.
Brief Biographical Summary
Sam Banks is a legendary public school art educator in the City of Richmond, Virginia who worked for the schools for 37 years. He grew up in Tappahannock County, Virginia, on the Northern Neck, as an African American in the era before desegregation. According to his recollection, Mr. Banks was the second African American to become a teacher in the Richmond City Schools, at Fox Elementary, around 1969 or 1970. In this interview, Sam discusses many things, including growing up in the segregated schools of Virginia, the difference between African American schools and white schools, local artists, arts integration, museums, his overall career, and The Arts & Humanities Center, which he directed for many years.
He developed a federally-funded Title III Ford Foundation program that brought in established, well-known artists, musicians, and authors to present to the students and help with the communication between students, mostly African American artists, in that time when integration was new and the intent was to work to smooth the transition. There was no other program in the country like it. After three years of federal funding, it was underwritten by the City. It became The Arts & Humanities Program, later The Arts & Humanities Center. Henrietta Kinman was the first director, and when she became ill and passed, Mr. Banks became the director of that program. There were teachers in each area specialty: a history teacher, an art teacher, an elementary classroom teacher, an English teacher, so that they had someone in each of the programs that they wanted to touch. There were artists-in-residence funded by grants: visual artists, poets, etc. The goal was for students to build bridges between subjects. By the time of his retirement, the school had about eight teachers. Teachers worked both at the Center’s home and they travelled to other schools. They eventually settled in the Mosby Building in Church Hill, which were three round buildings around a central core and rooms on the periphery. Since it was in the East End near Mosby Court area, it was in the community they were trying to reach. After Mr. Banks retired, the building was demolished due to a lack of strong leadership.
DR: You worked for Richmond City Schools for 37 years?
SB: I started off as an itinerant elementary art teacher. I had four schools in one week, all elementary. There were two regular schools and two exceptional education schools at that time when I started that first year. Then, after two years, one of the elementary schools had what was called then a Ford Foundation, that’s preceding a lot of the Federal grants and things that they have these days.
DR: Ford car company?
SB: Yes, it was associated with Ford manufacturing. And, the school was located in one of the large housing projects here in the city, which is Gilpin Court. That school wanted to add certain full time people to the staff. I guess I impressed the principal with the first two years when I was there as an itinerant. She wanted to have a full time art teacher associated with the school. The supervisor at that time, Helen Rose, who was one of the most innovative art educators in Virginia, if not in the country at that time, decided that I would go there full time. From there, it was just a wonderful experience of working with the students and also developing a program to work with the community in terms of arts education. I was there probably about nine years, something in that range, before there was another program, Federally-funded that was looking at the humanities, in terms of combining disciplines in the arts: how that could be used to bring together students during the process of integration, how students could better communicate through this structure. I was pulled to work with that program.
DR: When was this?
SB: That was like 1969 or 1970. I don’t remember a lot of the details at this point! But that program was really eye-opening and one that I enjoyed. The person in charge of it was the supervisor of English, which meant that I was moving away from the arts area and so I was straddling the fence between art education with Helen Rose and English with a lady by the name of Henrietta Kinman. Somewhere along the way, I don’t know where it was decided that it wasn’t working, so I would be split between the two. And I think one of the assistant superintendents decided that since they had this pilot federal program that I was going to go full time to that program. That was l1971 or 1972.
DR: So you became a full-time teacher at one school or more of an administrator?
SB: Well, I was teaching, but I’d always taught in full-time, but as an itinerant type of position, because as an elementary art teacher, you know, I started out with four schools; then I moved from four schools to one school. But, I was teaching. I’ve always been in this precarious position where things were kind of loosely structured. It was never tightly outlined as you find in a regular school where the teacher teaches X number of classes, go to lunch at this time, those kind of thing…. I have never been in one of those, whether it’s good or not, I don’t know, never been in one of those situations.
SB: That’s where Helen Rose was an art supervisor in Newton, Massachusetts, before coming to Richmond! I understand it was a very progressive area and school.
DR: It is, yes, and they have a huge budget. Recently they built the most expensive high school in the whole country.
SB: So, from this Ford Foundation position, I was moved fulltime to Baker School. Before I was made full time at Baker Elementary school, I was the second African American assigned to a white school after integration, which was William Fox Elementary School. And you know, there are various kinds of non-traditional systems. I can’t speak to the secondary, but from an itinerant standpoint in terms of the art teachers, there was one older lady that was assigned to a predominantly white school the year before I was, and I was the same, to be assigned, and I went to Fox, and that was… an experience.
DR: What year was that?
SB: [laughs, because another year question] That was in the mid-60s. Because it was prior to my being pulled to work with the federal program, which moved into the humanities.
DR: So, was it after they passed laws making integration legal?
SB: Yeah, it was after 1964, which is when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was decided. That was an excellent experience. I’ve always enjoyed working and teaching with kids, and adults. Sometimes it was challenging.
DR: Were the students also white?
SB: Uh-huh. Yeah, when I first went there, there may have been a handful of African American students in the school. The staff was, best as I can recall at this point, all white. The principal was white, who was really an excellent gentleman.
DR: What did you do with this art and English integration.
SB: It was a humanities type of program which was an integration of arts and literature and history. And it was a guy name of Paul Kennedy, who was an English teacher, and myself, who were the foot soldiers. Then we had the person in charge, Henrietta Kinman, who was the supervisor of English for the city schools. It was a program that was, I think at that time you called it, maybe Title III, which was an innovation program. The cities wrote the grant, but they wrote it in such a way that it involved the area school divisions as well. We were involved with Henrico, Hanover, and Goochland counties, in terms of this federally funded grant program. We were not only developing programs and presenting them in Richmond schools, but also in the other counties. We developed a lot of non-traditional programs. We did a lot of multi-media things for presentation that involved slides, film, and recordings. There were a number of noted persons brought in to present to large groups in the schools to get students and staff involved in communicating. And that’s where I met some of the artists, several of the artists whose work you see here [in the living room of his home], and who became my friends. But the program allowed us to bring in some well-known, established persons and individuals and literature to the program, as well as music, performing arts to speak to the kids.
DR: So, you brought in the real deal, in a way. Did you find that it’d be useful? What kind of effect did it have on students?
SB: The effect was varied. In the classroom, where there’s a stimulating environment, students may be reluctant to be involved with someone of a different culture more than likely will become involved in that stimulating environment. Once they’re out of that environment, for some of them, things will go back to normal. Others will see some things, pick up some things from that classroom situation that might carry over outside of it, so it varied.
DR: I read up on one of your students, actually. His name is Sir James Thornier.
SB: Sir James Thornier! Where’d you get that [laughs]?
DR: Google, you know… But, he said he studied with you.
SB: Yeah, at Baker Elementary school!
DR: My impression from the article is that he studied art privately with you.
SB: Oh! Well, see, being in that grant and being full time at Baker Elementary School, allowed me to do a lot of things. You know, I taught the classes, I did afternoon classes for students. I did night classes for parents, so we did a number of things.
DR: For parents too, ok. That’s wonderful. He said that if you can reach “kids through a piece of art, a mural, or music, it changes the whole composition of the city.” I was just wondering what you thought of that. He said that he grew up in Jackson Ward and he was inspired by people like Maggie Walker and John Mitchell, who was an editor for a newspaper. And he started off doing art, something about Philip Morris, too, he said he worked with Philip Morris company. I guess he was doing some sort of work with making advertisements or something.
SB: I’m not sure, because I lost contact with James and a number of students that I had real close contact with at the elementary school. I’m not certain even where he went to high school. They went their way, and I went to another program. It was some years later that we connected again. In fact, we connected when he came to VCU.
DR: Oh, is that right? Interesting. Well, the reason I ask is because you were talking about local artists, too. Are there any in particular that you found to be interesting?
SB: There are a number of local artists, you know, that have moved forward. I can’t take any credit or have any involvement with many of them except for a couple that might have had contact with me as they transitioned through school, and it would have been at the elementary level. So, how much influence or impact I would have had on them from an elementary standpoint, I’m not sure. But, there are guys like James Thornhill who are still developing. There’s a guy by the name of Jero Jones who is still developing. But there are a number of young people that I had contact with back in those days at the elementary level that have gone on to be successful. Not successful all in the individual arts, but in other areas. I would say, probably more in other areas than in the arts, in terms of their success. So, I don’t take any credit for any of that because you know, they went through so many hands in terms of teachers and persons who were influential. I’m just happy to see that they’re doing well.