Review: A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi

A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine: Charles Banks of Mississippi. David H. Jackson, Jr. Review by Johana-Marie Williams.

In A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine, David H. Jackson seeks to expound on the inner-workings of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine by discussing the life of Charles Banks, Washington’s “lieutenant” in Mississippi; one of the leaders who reported directly to Washington and forwarded his mission of constructionalism through both economic and political means in the state and nationally.
Jackson defines constructionalism as the effort to “construct policies and programs to deal with the imposition and problems of racism, rather than react with the threat of retaliation,” and “constructing a community and carving out a space in a country inclined to keep them at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder.”[1]
Jackson’s thesis is that Washington’s Tuskegee Machine has been somewhat maligned by its picture as an organization full of ruthless scheming and unscrupulous machinations, and he states that he will counter that by showing the inner-workings of the Tuskegee Machine, and highlighting their accomplishments which could not have happened without some cohesive element. He also notes that Charles Banks has been neglected as a historical figure in general, despite his rank in Washington’s organization and the relative successes he achieved in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Charles Banks was an entrepreneur who built his wealth in the mercantile business, and used that wealth to fund many ventures such as the Bank of Mound Bayou, the Mound Bayou Oil Cotton Mill, and in philanthropic endeavors such as funding a twenty five dollar annual scholarship to Tuskegee.[2]
Jackson is definitely successful in the second proposition, as I learned much about the politics of Mississippi at the time and how Banks was able to use his influence to really establish Mound Bayou and establish programs and business ventures to the benefit of citizens and even to other African Americans and Whites outside of the city and outside of that time.[3] In particular, I found impressive and revealing the establishment of public education, including the Mound Bayou Consolidated Negro School, and Bank’s lobbying to several presidential administrations for positions for those considered friends of the Tuskegee Machine and/or useful to their ends. Despite popular rendition of history, I was reminded that there was never really a time or place that Black people were using what agency they had to advance themselves and each other and were not fighting more.
However, I would not say that Jackson is completely successful in his efforts to lessen the image of the Tuskegee Machine as a somewhat political and underhanded organization. The frequent power plays between Banks and Isaiah Montgomery; between Banks and his brother-in-law, Eugene Booze; and between Bank’s friend and Booker T. Washington’s secretary Emmett Jay Scott and Washington’s successor Robert Moton, still lend credence to the idea that the organization was plagued by warring personalities. It does not help that the organization seemed to attract charlatans, embezzlers, and cheats though that may have been more a consequence of the Tuskegee Machine being a Negro movement with some pull in the business and political sphere but also a lot of vulnerabilities. From Jackson’s account it is obvious that Washington played a key role not only as leader but as a bridge between all the warring personalities and opposing ambitions and that his passing in 1915 left the organization in general and Banks in particular more vulnerable than before.
What I can and do agree with Jackson on is that Charles Banks’ political and economic efforts in Mound Bayou cannot be counted as a loss despite the difficulties encountered. We can never know what history might look like without those years of protection and freedom for African Americans to vote, to build businesses and family, to have an oasis from persecution. What we can know is that some decades later a young man with his family moved to Mound Bayou to become a salesman for Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, and that that young man would eventually join the Regional Council for Negro Leadership and a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Medgar Evers.[4] A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine shows us that even aborted efforts (which not all of Banks enterprises were) at establishing an independent Black city in the spirit of constructionism can and has borne fruit for future movements for Black liberation.

[1] Jackson, David H.. A Chief Lieutenant of the Tuskegee Machine, 42-43
[2] Ibid., 60, 105
[3] ibid., 140
[4] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (June 24, 2013). "NAACP History: Medgar Evers".; Wesleyan University (June 24, 2013). "Medgar Evers: July 2, 1925-June 12, 1963".

One Comment

  1. Wow Its nice to know about my Cousin Charles Banks. Thanks for sharing