Banks, William 1903–1985
William Banks 1903–1985
Broadcasting executive, attorney, minister
William Banks was a man committed to improving his community as evidenced by numerous career accomplishments that successfully managed to do just that. An attorney, Baptist minister, business owner, founder of a fraternal organization, and television and radio station owner, Banks’s list of achievements spanned the twentieth century and with it the range of possibilities for African Americans in the United States. As a community supporter, investor, and activist, Banks lived most of his adult life in the Detroit area and contributed greatly to the city’s rise to prominence as the one of the first places in North America where an African American community wielded political and economic power.
The son of a tenant farmer, Banks was born May 6, 1903, in Geneva, Kentucky. He attended the Lincoln Institute there before relocating to Michigan. In Detroit he found work in the automotive factories while attending college, graduating first from Detroit City College, now Wayne State University, and later graduating with a law degree from the Detroit College of Law. He began practicing as a private attorney in 1930, and with his wife Ivy Bird raised two daughters, Tenicia and Harumi, and a son, Alterio. Banks also became active in numerous civic organizations, including the local branch of the Masonic lodge. However, he had also been attending Detroit Baptist College, working toward a doctorate in divinity, and was growing dissatisfied with the fraternal group’s fundraising practices that involved liquor sales and gambling.
After being ordained a Baptist minister in 1949, Banks founded the International Free and Accepted Masons and Eastern Star the following year. The organization began in Canton, Ohio, with less than two dozen members, but grew to 1,500 one year later. With Banks at its helm as Supreme Director, the Black Masons–as the group came to be known–raised money for numerous projects in the African American community. To do this the Masons sold endowments in blocks of $100 to members, who were then obligated to pay 35 cents each month toward every $100 endowment in their name. The Masons invested this money wisely, especially in real estate, and founded vocational schools in the Detroit area like the Universal Barber College and the International School of Cosmetology.
In 1964, Banks and the Masons bought an FM radio station at the end of the dial in the Detroit market. They encouraged local ministers to buy broadcast time for religious programming and added to that a funky, R&B-based musical format, eventually making a financial success of the station. The station’s call letters were WGPR, which soon came to be know as “Where God’s Presence Radiates.” By this time Banks had become a prominent local business leader, active in area Republican organizations and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When then-U.S. president Richard Nixon invited him to the White House for dinner in the early 1970s, the two discussed the lack of African Americans among media owners in
Born William Venoid Banks, May 6, 1903, in Gene va, KY; died August 24, 1985, in Detroit, MI; son of a tenant farmer; married Ivy Bird; children: Tenida Gregory, Harumi Banks-Martin, Alterio. Education: Attended the Lincoln Institute; Detroit City College, B.A 1929; Detroit College of Law, law degree, c 1930, honorary law doctorate, 1968; Detroit Baptist College, D.D. Religion: Baptist, Politics: Republican.
Ford Motor Company, factory worker, Detroit, MI, 1920s; attorney in private practice, Detroit, 1930-85; International Free and Accepted Masons and Eastern Star, founder, supreme director, 1950-85; WGPR-FM, Detroit, MI, president and general manager, 1964; WGPR-TV, Detroit, MI, president and general manager, 1975-85; City of Detroit, First Congressional District Republican Organization, president, Detroit, MI, 1974-77; Republican National Convention, delegate, 1972, 1976,
Member: National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, board of directors; Wolverine Bar Association; Bar of the State of Michigan; Association of Black Broadcasting, president; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Metropolitan Voters League, chair; Baptist Ministers’ Conference.
Awards: Outstanding Achievement Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Commendation, Detroit Common Council; Business Services Award, Booker T. Washington Businessmen’s Association.
the country. The chief executive promised to help Banks secure a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to assist in his bid to become the first African American owner of a television station.
Banks’s dream became a reality in September of 1975, when WGPR-TV went on the air in Detroit. Several of the Masons’ savvy real estate investments, including property in northern Michigan and Florida, had been sold to finance the purchase of the first African American-owned television outlet in the United States. Important Michigan corporations pledged advertising dollars to help WGPR get underway that first year, and Banks and the Masons received national media attention for their achievement. His daughter Tenicia Gregory took leave from her English professorship to work for the fledgling television station. Hopes were high from the start-WGPR promised 90 percent locally produced programming and a format geared toward Detroit’s increasing African American community.
Yet Banks and his staff ran into numerous roadblocks during the first few years of WGPR’s operation. “The plans were too big. Too unrealistic. The town’s top TV stations couldn’t afford to produce 90 percent of their programming,” wrote Detroit Free Press reporter Larry Gabriel in a 1994 article on WGPR. Banks’s daughter Gregory recalled, “The first thing we learned was we didn’t know a heck of a lot about what you needed for a TV station. We did not realize how expensive television was.” Technical problems with commercials made advertisers wary, and when they began cancelling their advertisements, WGPR began losing much-needed revenue. The staff was reduced, and those that stayed on worked for negligible or no compensation.
Success for WGPR came from unusual sources during its first decade. One was an in-house local dance show called “The Scene” that regularly attracted hundreds of area teenagers who came down to the studio looking for a chance to dance. Years after its cancellation, reruns of old episodes were still popular on Detroit cable television. The station was also the first to broadcast 24 hours a day, beginning in August of 1978 with cult movies running until 6 a.m. spliced in between advertisements for local businesses sold at discount rates. Additionally, Banks used his extensive contacts to help keep the station afloat during these lean years, selling air time to local churches for religious programming. The station was also one of the first to feature national televangelists like Jim Bakker. More significantly, during its first few years on the air WGPR provided a valuable training ground for African American broadcasters and behind-the-scenes personnel.
The shaky financial status of the television station made it an easy target for acquisition-hungry media players during the 1970s and 1980s. Banks was continually offered bids to buy WGPR, but turned them down despite the often large sums mentioned. During its eighth year in operation the station finally started earning money. Meanwhile WGPR had indirectly benefitted the community by providing a launching pad for African Americans in the media. Many who began at the station eventually left for better-paying positions elsewhere. The station “made peace with the fact that its impact on broadcasting would be to funnel African Americans into the business,” wrote Gabriel in the Detroit Free Press. “Dr. Banks never wanted to hold anybody back,” his widow, Ivy Banks, told the newspaper. “He was happy for them. He knew that they could get a better salary somewhere else.”
Banks died in August of 1985 at the age of 82. At the funeral service, then-mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, spoke of Banks’s lifelong commitment to Detroit, its citizens, and its future. “He did more than talk about this,” the Detroit News quoted Young as saying. “He acted on it, he invested in it, and he had the kind of faith that kept this city moving.” Sadly, subsequent court battles between Banks’s widow and the Black Masons severed the connection between his survivors and the organizations he founded. After her husband’s passing Ivy Banks planned to take over the helm of the Masonic group, but was legally thwarted by a group of 46 members. Both she and daughter Tenicia Gregory resigned from WGPR and the Masons; less than a decade later the Masons sold the station to CBS, who was looking to replace an affiliate in the Detroit market. Several African American business people challenged the reported $24 million sale of the station and the transfer of the FCC license on grounds of the station’s historical significance to the African American community.
Black Enterprise, March 1995, p. 19.
Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1985, p. 4C; November 27, 1994, p. 1G.
Detroit News, August 30, 1985, p. A3.
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