March 4th, 2011
12:45 AM ET

After 57 years, break in civil rights era cold case

Chuck Hadad
AC360° Producer

(CNN) - On June 4, 1954, wealthy African-American land owner Isadore Banks disappeared in his hometown of Marion, Arkansas and was discovered days later chained to a tree, shot and burned beyond recognition. For nearly 57 years, his family has lived with the pain of two mysteries: who killed him and what happened to his land. Now, one of those mysteries might finally be solved.

His son Jim Banks says his father owned more than 1000 acres at the time of his death but any record of ownership had disappeared.

“What happened to his land? That’s the $64,000 question … and all records have been destroyed,” Banks said.

He maintains conspirators plotted to take the land away from his family, possibly providing a motive for his father’s murder. “I certainly believe that with all of my heart,” he said, adding, “he owned a great deal of land and at that time, that wasn’t common to have that kind of wealth for a black man. Offers had been made many times and he refused.”

CNN was able to uncover records showing Banks had owned land in the years leading up to his death but no records reflecting proof of ownership at the time he was killed.

Now, the lingering questions over what happened to Isadore Banks’ land are close to being answered.

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University’s School of Law has been investigating Banks’ case for over a year and has just made a remarkable discovery; The Project has found records proving what Banks’ family has known for 57 years.

“It appears he owned quite a bit of land at the time of his death,” said Margaret Burnham, Director of the Project. She explained the records were unearthed in various county court houses in Arkansas and in state records offices.

The Project, which also represents Banks’ descendants, now must undergo the arduous process of tracing the land to its current owners and perhaps filing suits seeking transfer of the land back to Banks’ family.

While that journey is sure to be a long one, Banks’ family is heartened that after so many years, they could reclaim the land they’ve been denied since 1954.

“I just jumped for joy and I started calling people and saying, ‘They found the land! They found the land!’ All of the relatives were the same as I was - overwhelmed,” said Banks’ granddaughter Marcelina Williams. She added that if and when they successfully reclaim her grandfather’s property, “we are going to have the biggest party on his land.”

Isadore Banks’ killers, however, are no closer to being brought to justice.

The FBI, which first investigated Banks’ death decades ago but abandoned the case after the investigation stalled, re-opened it in 2007 as part of their Civil Rights Era Cold Case Initiative. No suspect has ever been named in the case but it remains open.

"We are still requesting the public's assistance to provide us any information or records that would help us identify the persons that may have been involved in this crime or their motives, including the records from Northeastern School of Law,” said Special Agent Steve Frazier of the Little Rock, Arkansas office of the FBI.

Banks’ family believe that his killers, or those who know who killed him, are still alive but remain silent.

“I have no doubt in my mind that there are people still living who know exactly what happened. Absolutely no doubt,” Banks’ son Jim said.

“I think they'll take it to the grave with them,” he added.

–AC360° Correspondent Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

Filed under: Chuck Hadad • Crime & Punishment • Gary Tuchman
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Keith Warren

    Cases like this give hope to the family and friends of Keith Warren a 19yr black man found strung up on a tree in 1986. His family and friends have verifiable evidence that Keith's death was homicide, however local law enforcement ruled it a suicide. Local law enforcement admitted to destroying evidence and not following procedure, however they will not help bring to justice those who took Keith's life. What is a family to do?

    March 4, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  2. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Of course Bank's was killed for his land and for one purpose only, for the killers to live on it. How low can you go and I pray justice is served in favor of Mr. Bank's family members.

    March 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  3. Curt K. Cox

    The government must give the family back the land. Even if they don't want to give 100% back 75% would be great.

    Now we know exactly what happened to him. We might not have all of details but we know exactly what happen to Black people back in those days.

    It was a disgraceful era in American history that certain groups don't want too admit to.

    March 4, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  4. Luis G. Canino Jr.

    In reference to Mr. Gadafi I make this comment

    Victory will come to a bad Man for as long as good man do nothing.

    March 4, 2011 at 1:44 am |