On June 22, 1940, athletic egalitarianism finally came to the nation's capital.

The place was Griffith Stadium. The event was the meeting of two featherweight champions, both the best the region had to offer. When they touched gloves in the center of the 22-foot ring that cool summer night, they marked the end of an era and the beginning of one of the most memorable events in D.C. sporting history.

The promoter of the fight, Goldie Ahearn, was taking what many boxing pundits considered to be a precipitous gamble in setting up the fight. But Ahearn believed that a contest between "Baltimore" Joe Soles -- a hard-driving heavy-handed brawler with extraordinary upper-body strength and an impressive KO record -- and Billy Banks -- reigning D.C. titlist and two-time Golden Glove champion with a 30-1 record -- was a natural. Banks -- classy, clever and lightning-fast with a textbook left-right combination -- was the perfect foil for the tough, swarming Soles. The kicker was that Soles was white, and Banks was black.

William Medford Banks had grown up in the lower-middle class area of 17th and Corcoran streets NW. His father died when he was 5, and he left school at 14 to help support his family. But life on the streets was tough. He got beaten and robbed, and he soon tired of it. He decided to learn how to fight and sought out trainer/manager Billy Edwards at his 12th and U street gym.

At first, Edwards was skeptical; Banks was small and thin. But he says, Banks "worked hard, did everything I told him. All he needed was to learn how to punch. ... It wasn't long before he was the hottest prospect in town." Banks turned professional in 1938, soon dominating both featherweight and lightweight divisions.

So popular was this Washington native that the mood among black Washingtonians reached near celebratory dimensions before he even reached the ring that June night. Griffith Stadium was at capacity, with the racial makeup of the crowd about split. The loud partisanship, though, did not follow racial lines.

Former lightweight contender George "Buddy" Farrell was there and remembers the scene. "The people were loud and fired up," he says. "Everybody came to cheer Billy -- and that included the whites."

Banks himself recalls the noise and the policemen.

"There were policemen everywhere -- in the crowd, along the runway and at ringside, especially at ringside," he says. "And they were dressed for trouble. But what made me so proud was when I was told after the fight that not a single incident went down."

Following an agonizingly long wait, the crowd finally heard a commotion at one end of the stadium. Flanked by policemen, Soles and his entourage began making their way toward the ring. Once there, an impassive Soles disrobed to mixed reviews from the raucous audience.

About a minute later, Banks appeared. The crowd got to its feet. Banks leaped into the ring and gave a polite bow. He followed this with a series of rapid-fire warm-up punches. The stadium rocked with chants of "Bil-lee!" "Bil-lee!"

Bebe Washington, a former welterweight and middleweight contender, says, "The ring announcer just stood there holding the mike as Billy Banks got one ovation after another. Things settled down after the fight got started, but that was the warmest ovation I had ever seen before or since."

Edwards has an explanation for Banks's popularity. "Billy was a real gentleman, role-model type. He always stayed in shape, a real clean-liver," he says. "Everybody knew the big money boys were ducking him, and just like the gentleman that he was, he never complained, always gave 100 percent. My feeling that night was that the people just turned out to tell him that they loved him."

"Baltimore" Joe Soles lasted until the fourth round. At the sound of the bell to start that round, the crowd erupted as Banks came out fast and caught Soles with a three-punch combination. Soles collapsed in a heap.

"The ref could have counted to a thousand," Edwards says.

Moments later, after Banks had checked his opponent's condition, he graciously thanked the judges and all the friends who had turned out to see him fight.

After that night, Banks went on to fight lightweight and featherweight champions and top contenders of his day. But "ducking," non-title clauses, "giveaway" decisions and racial discrimination persisted well into the 1950s, and he never got the national recognition he deserved.

"I don't think most of {today's boxers} would have lasted very long against Billy," says Bobby Brown, manager of the House of Champions. "Banks was a deadly puncher and didn't believe in wasting time. He'd look at you for a round or two to see what you had. And when he found that weakness, he'd move in, and it was all over."

Today at age 70, Banks is active and in excellent shape, just a few pounds over his fighting weight of more than 45 years ago. In 1980 he was inducted into the D.C. Boxing Hall of Fame, and recently he was honored by the organization for his contributions to boxing as a fighter, manager and trainer.

When the roll call of Washington's greatest fighters is sounded, from Bobby Foster to Holly Mims, Billy Banks is sure to be among them. -- Norman S. Saunders Jr.