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D.C.'s Billy Banks, 85; A Boxer and a Gentleman

Billy Banks, 85, started boxing as a teenager during the Depression. In 1940, he fought the first professional bout in the District between a black boxer and a white boxer.  In later years, he owned or managed local restaurants, including Chuck and Billy's Bar and Grill.
Billy Banks, 85, started boxing as a teenager during the Depression. In 1940, he fought the first professional bout in the District between a black boxer and a white boxer. In later years, he owned or managed local restaurants, including Chuck and Billy's Bar and Grill. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006

Billy Banks, 85, a D.C. boxer known in the 1940s for his lightning left-right combinations, his dapper attire outside the ring and his gentlemanly demeanor, died of lung cancer Aug. 31 at Washington Hospital Center.

His boxing career lasted about a decade, but for Mr. Banks, one fight stood out. At Griffith Stadium on a June night in 1940, the classy young featherweight stepped into the ring against "Baltimore" Joe Sole. It was a preliminary bout, on a card that featured Louis Kid Cocoa vs. Wild Bill McDowell, but the Banks-Sole fight was the one that had fans buzzing. For the first time in the District, a black man and a white man would be throwing punches at each other in the ring.

"That particular fight was the greatest thrill of my life," Mr. Banks told The Washington Post this year, "because I knew that fight was going to break the segregation line."

Griffith Stadium was packed that night nearly 70 years ago, and police were everywhere, keeping an eye out for any race-related disturbances. Although Mr. Banks was a popular fighter, especially among black Washingtonians, nobody knew what to expect. Mr. Banks himself was unsure; he had a couple of white friends with him to serve as bodyguards, just in case.

Years later, he recalled emerging from the dugout onto the field. The hometown crowd went wild with shouts of "Bil-lee! Bil-lee!" He climbed into the ring, gave a polite bow and began throwing warm-up punches.

"I told myself, 'For once, I'm a king,' " he recalled.

For the first couple of rounds, the two fighters felt each other out, but in the third, Mr. Banks began to take control. When the bell sounded for Round 4, he came out fast and caught Sole with a three-punch combination. The Baltimorean hit the canvas hard and stayed there. The crowd erupted in cheers for the hometown fighter.

"The ref could have counted to a thousand," his manager said in 1991.

William Medford Banks was born in Madison, Va., and moved to the District at age 5, shortly after his father died. At 14, he dropped out of Francis Junior High School to help his mother, two sisters and a brother survive the Depression.

Although prize fighting was considered a ticket out of poverty for young men with quick fists and a willingness to take a punch, a ring career seemed highly unlikely for the slight, soft-spoken youngster -- until, that is, a neighborhood bully began making his life miserable.

The young Mr. Banks reluctantly concluded he had to do something about it; no one else was going to. He weighed maybe a hundred pounds and the bully more than twice that, but when the tussle he initiated came to a quick end, it was little Billy Banks still standing. His neighborhood nemesis didn't bother him again.

A former fighter who lived in the neighborhood started training Mr. Banks, despite his mother's efforts to discourage his boxing ambitions. She couldn't bear to see her little boy beat up, even after he turned pro a few years later.

Local trainer-manager Billy Edwards took him on, even though he had lingering doubts about the skinny guy. But Mr. Banks was smart, disciplined and willing to be coached, and it wasn't long before he was the hottest young fighter in town. After winning two Golden Gloves championships and compiling a 30-1 amateur record, he turned professional in 1938.

After the big night in Griffith Stadium, Mr. Banks went on to fight featherweight and lightweight contenders up and down the East Coast, sometimes competing twice a week. "I'm coming in at 126 pounds, and my opponent might weigh 150 pounds," he recalled this year, "but it didn't make no difference. I was just happy to get that $50."

His ring career lasted into the late 1940s, until he caught a thumb in his left eye that resulted in a detached retina. The injury, misdiagnosed for two years, not only ended his career, but also cost him his sight in the eye.

Known during his fighting days as "the U Street Beau Brummell," Mr. Banks opened Billy Banks Men's Store on the street when his fighting days were done. He also trained local fighters for a number of years.

For about 20 years, he owned or managed bars and restaurants, including the Kenyon Grill and the Ringside Inn. Beginning in the early 1990s, he was the "Billy" in Chuck and Billy's Bar and Grill, a popular Georgia Avenue NW establishment across the street from Howard University.

In recent years, Mr. Banks had battled diabetes and lung cancer. His only son, Billy Banks Jr., died in July, and he had never really gotten over his grief, his wife said.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Ada Banks of the District; a daughter, Cristellyn Banks of the District; two sisters, Genevieve Johnson and Myra Weston, both of the District; a brother, Harold Banks of Philadelphia; and eight grandchildren.


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