Banks, Elijah A.

Biography

photo of  Elijah A. Banks

The president of the Central States Mission was startled when, in 1904, he received a letter from a missionary serving in Florida. That letter does not survive, but its allegations against the virtue of a Latter-day Saint woman in Minneapolis are clear from the president’s response. “I am personally acquainted with the Sister Bank[s] you spoke of and have visited and dined at her home and am also quite well acquainted with her husband. They have always been regarded both by Elders and members of our church in Minneapolis as exemplary people in their lives and conduct. While it is true that Mr. Bank[s] is a colored man and his wife is a white woman yet we of the north do not consider this any bar to their being proper candidates for admittance into the fold of Christ. God is no respecter of persons and is as anxious to save the souls of our black brethren as he is of the white.” President Asahel H. Woodruff informed the elder that his informant, a southerner who had visited the branch in Minneapolis, had been misled by southern prejudice “to form wrong conclusions as to the character of Sister Bank[s], against whom we have never heard a breath of suspicion. We presume that the marriage of a white woman to a colored man of the south would ostracize her from the association of her white brothers and sisters, but here in the north it is different.” 1

Only five years later, a successor president of the same mission expressed quite a different attitude toward the “souls of [the] black brethren” under his stewardship. He complained to the Church’s president, “We have three families of colored people, all of whom have been in the church eight or ten years, – one family in Minneapolis, Minn. [and two elsewhere]. They have been good faithful people but so much in evidence in our meetings, that investigators have been kept away from our services, so with this lesson before us we have done no work among the colored people for at least seven years.” 2

Both mission presidents were writing of the same Latter-day Saint, Elijah A. Banks.

Born a slave in or near Shelbyville, Bedford County, Tennessee, in 1855, to Sarah Banks and to a father he could identify only as “a colored Slave,” 3 Elijah migrated to Minneapolis at least by 1879, when he worked as a “yard man” at the elegant St. James Hotel in Red Wing, Minnesota, which still stands as a restored local landmark. In the 1880s and ’90s he worked for the Minneapolis railroad magnate Charles Henry Prior, officially designated as “coachman” in local records, but in reality providing any number of household services until by 1898, he could seek employment with the claim that he could “do most everything.” That “most everything” included painting and paperhanging; into the 1910s, Elijah operated as an independent businessman, in the painting and paperhanging business. 4

On 11 October 1898, Elijah, in his 40s, married for the first time to Caroline Amelia Bailey, of Pennsylvania. Carrie, as she was generally known, was a white woman, about five years Elijah’s senior. The couple had no children; they were married more than 30 years. For some period during the early years of their marriage, Elijah also supported Carrie’s mother in his home. Elijah’s marriage may have resulted in his discharge from employment by Mr. Prior; two months after marriage, his advertisement for employment asks for work “to earn bread and butter for wife and I.” 5

After a sporadic presence in Minnesota throughout the last half of the 19th century, Latter-day Saint missionaries began working more systematically in Minnesota beginning with the reorganization of the Northern States Mission in 1896. Elders arrived in Minneapolis in September 1897 to canvass the city. Progress was slow, and only a Sunday School, not a full branch, was organized in the city. Still, Minneapolis received attention by leaders from Salt Lake City: apostle and future Church president Heber J. Grant spoke at a meeting in Minneapolis in March, 1899; in August of the same year, apostle Matthias F. Cowley spoke at a conference there. 6

It seems very likely that Elijah A. Banks attended the March conference to hear Grant; he certainly must have attended the August conference, because Elijah and Carrie were baptized on 4 June of that year, by Frank V. Ensign of Salt Lake City. Both were confirmed the same day, Elijah by James Henry Anderson of Lewiston, Cache County, Utah, and Carrie by Carl G. Werterberg of Hyrum, Cache County, Utah. 7

Local records are scarce for the years of Elijah’s membership in the Church in Minneapolis; those that do exist hint at a man who was deeply involved in Church activity, one who studied his religion and who was able and willing to contribute to the success of the Church. From Sunday School minutes:

16 February 1902: ... The exercises consisted in short discourses rendered by members as follows. Brother Banks on our first parents in Eden. ... Sister Carrie Banks on the Tree of Life ... 9 March 1902: ... The class exercises consisted in short speeches by ... Brother Banks on the nature of Atonement ... 6 April 1902: ... Brother Elijah Banks and Brother John Fiocati each spoke on the foundation of faith ... Benediction offered by Brother Elijah Banks ... 13 April 1902: ... Brother Elijah Banks showed that faith is a gift of God. ... 27 April 1902: ... Brother Elijah Banks read on Repentance essential to salvation. ... 8

In 1902 or 1903, when a photograph was made of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Sunday School, a black man who is undoubtedly Elijah A. Banks stands surrounded by his fellow white Saints. By 1907, when a branch had been formed in Minneapolis and members rented and furnished a building to meet in, Elijah would have been one of the “scarcely a dozen to foot the bill,” whose loyalty was shown “by their willingness to take a two hundred dollar bill for furnishings and a monthly rent of eighteen dollars.” 9 Elijah and Carrie had hosted Mission President Asahel H. Woodruff in their home before 1904, and even though German E. Ellsworth, the succeeding mission president, complained about the presence of black faces in mission congregations, his 1909 letter speaks undeniably to Elijah’s church activity and his attendance during conference visits by that president. 10

In 1910, Elijah and Carrie moved to Washburn, Bayfield County, Wisconsin, where they boarded with apparently the only other black family in the vicinity, and where Elijah worked as a farm laborer, a distinct change from his urban occupations in Minneapolis, but perhaps a return to familiar labors of his Tennessee childhood. While there, the couple wrote to the First Presidency of the Church. While their letter to Salt Lake City, and the response sent by George F. Gibbs, the Church’s secretary are, as of this writing, unavailable, a partial transcription of the response found in the notes of a researcher suggest some of the topics that concerned Elijah. Elijah must have asked about the status of his race in eternity, and may have inquired about his opportunities to go to the temple, because Gibbs told him that “it is not true that negroes are not subjects of salvation. [They] are barred from [the] temple because [they are] not entitled to priesthood.” Elijah may have asked the reason for his exclusion from the priesthood; Gibbs wrote to him that there was “no reason why you should be discouraged, as the day will come when it will be revealed to you why your race is in this unfortunate state” – a curious statement given the now-discredited theory of the “curse of Cain [that] was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions,” and a discouraging one given the absence of the oft-repeated assurance that in some distant, unspecified future, those restrictions would be lifted. Instead of those reassurances, Gibbs told Elijah that “the day will come when it will be revealed to you why your race is in this unfortunate state.” And finally, Elijah appears to have reported that he was trying to organize a Sunday School in Wisconsin, because Gibbs advised him that “without doubt Prest. Ellsworth [of the Northern States Mission] will encourage you to continue your Sunday School work, also to invite your colored friends to send their children to the school conducted by you.” 11

In August 1910, Elijah had left Wisconsin to return to Minneapolis; he advertised in the local newspaper that “E.A. Banks and wife have recently returned to the city after an absence of several months. Mr. Banks wishes to let his old friends and patrons know that he is still in the painting and paper hanging business.” 12 Undoubtedly he continued his involvement with the LDS Church in Minneapolis: although no specific detail of his church activity during the following years has yet been found, his enduring connection can be deduced from the fact that time and again, as successive membership record books were filled and new ones opened, the membership information of Elijah and Carrie Banks was copied into the new books. Both were enumerated in the census of Church members taken in 1925 and again in 1930.

In 1919, when he was 64 years old, Elijah apparently closed his independent business as a painter and paperhanger when he and Carrie moved into an apartment at the rear of “The Swinford,” a stylish townhouse building in the then-elegant inner-city neighborhood around Minneapolis’s Hawthorne Park. The building on Hawthorne Avenue still stands, a newly restored Romanesque Revival building now on the National Register of Historic Places. Elijah served as the building’s superintendent or engineer until he was past his 70th birthday. He and Carrie remained in their Swinford apartment thereafter, with Elijah working as the building’s janitor, work in which Carrie assisted him during at least part of that time. 13

The Bankses were still living at the Swinford when Caroline Bailey Banks died on 11 February 1931. 14

That summer, Elijah applied for old age assistance from the local government; the Hennepin County Commission allowed him a pension of $10 per month, a stipend which he drew for about six months. On Sunday, 17 April 1932, while waiting on the station platform at Tonka Bay for a street car to take him home to Minneapolis, Elijah dropped dead of a heart attack. The public spectacle of his death is probably responsible for the brief obituary, inaccurate in several of its details, published in the Star-Tribune at Minneapolis: “Ante-Bellum Slave Dies at Tonka Bay. E.A. Banks, Negro, believed to be nearly 90 years old, who was a slave before the Civil war, died Sunday afternoon at Tonka Bay, Lake Minnetonka.” 15

Elijah’s death was also recorded in the records of the Minnesota Conference of the Church. The standard form called for his name and other identifying information, and asked a question: “Died in full fellowship?” The answer recorded by the clerk was “Yes.” 16

By Ardis E. Parshall

Primary Sources

“Ante-Bellum Slave Dies at Tonka Bay,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 18 April 1932, 7.

“Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 25 July 1931, 32.

“Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 11 August 1931, 14.

“Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 28 May 1932, 18.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1925 census. Entry for Elijah Banks family.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1930 census. Entry for Elijah Banks family.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection. CR 375 8, box 4244, folder 1, image 12; box 4245, folder 1, images 37, 50, 85, 122, 327, and 499; box 4247, folder 1, image 372, 394, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Minneapolis Branch. Sunday School Minutes and Records. LR 12362 15. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“[E.A. Banks and wife have recently returned ...],” The Appeal (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 20 August 1910, 4.

Ellsworth, German E., Letter to Joseph F. Smith, 24 December 1909. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection. CR 375 8, box 4244, folder 1, image 12; box 4245, folder 1, images 37, 50, 85, 122, 327, and 499, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gibbs, George F., Letter to Elijah A. and Caroline B. Banks, 11 July 1911. Abbreviated typescript in Scott G. Kenney collection, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Minneapolis. City directories, 1879, 1881, 1882, 1892, 1894, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930.

Minnesota. 1905 state census. Hennepin County, Minneapolis.

Minnesota. Department of Health. Death index, 1908-2002. Certificates 1931-18007 and 1932-5603.

“Some of Our Mission Sunday Schools: The St. Paul-Minneapolis Sunday School,” Juvenile Instructor, `1 February 1903, 78-79.

United States. 1880 census. Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis.

United States. 1900 census. Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis.

United States. 1910 census. Wisconsin, Bayfield County, Washburn.

United States. 1920 census. Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis.

United States. 1930 census. Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis.

“Wanted.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 16 December 1898, 9.

Woodruff, Asahel H., Letter to P.P. Taylor, 5 February 1904. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Secondary Sources

Minnesota. Marriages, 1849-1950. Index to extracted records. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 2008.

“Race and the Priesthood” [Gospel Topics Essay], Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, December 2013.

Willes, Fayone B. Minnesota Mormons: A History of the Minneapolis Minnesota Stake. Minneapolis Minnesota State of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990.


1 Asahel H. Woodruff, Letter to P.P. Taylor, 5 February 1904. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

2 German E. Ellsworth, Letter to Joseph F. Smith, 24 December 1909. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

3 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection. CR 375 8, box 4244, folder 1, image 12; box 4245, folder 1, images 37 and 50, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

4 Minneapolis city directories, various years from 1879 onward; “Wanted.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 16 December 1898, 9.

5 Minnesota. Marriages, 1849-1950. Index to extracted records; entry for Elijah A. Banks and Caroline Bailey, 1898. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 2008; United States. 1900 census. Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, enumeration of Elijah Banks household. “Wanted.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 16 December 1898, 9. Caroline’s middle name was probably “Amelia” as it appears in several documents, but it appears on at least one Church membership record as “Addelia.”

6 Willes, Fayone B. Minnesota Mormons: A History of the Minneapolis Minnesota Stake . Minneapolis Minnesota State of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, 56-57.

7 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection. CR 375 8, box 4244, folder 1, image 12; box 4245, folder 1, images 37 and 50, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

8 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Minneapolis Branch. Sunday School Minutes and Records. LR 12362 15. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

9 “Some of Our Mission Sunday Schools: The St. Paul-Minneapolis Sunday School,” Juvenile Instructor, `1 February 1903, 78-79. “The Minneapolis Branch, Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 2 November 1907, 558.

10 Asahel H. Woodruff, Letter to P.P. Taylor, 5 February 1904. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; German E. Ellsworth, Letter to Joseph F. Smith, 24 December 1909. Northern States Mission. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

11 George F. Gibbs, Letter to Elijah A. and Caroline B. Banks, 11 July 1911. Abbreviated typescript in Scott G. Kenney collection, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. (The date is recorded in this source as 1911; that is likely a transcription error for 1910, because Elijah had returned to Minneapolis in the fall of 1910 and would not have used the Wisconsin address in writing to Salt Lake City in 1911.)

12 “[E.A. Banks and wife have recently returned ...],” The Appeal (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 20 August 1910, 4.

13 Minnesota city directories, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930.

14 Minnesota. Department of Health. Death index, 1908-2002. Certificate 1931-18007 for “Carlyn” Banks.

15 “Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 25 July 1931, 32; “Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 11 August 1931, 14; “Board of County Commissioners of Hennepin County,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 28 May 1932, 18. “Ante-Bellum Slave Dies at Tonka Bay,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 18 April 1932, 7.

16 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, CR 375 8, box 4247, folder 1, image 394, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Documents

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