Hometown legend Ernie Banks immortalized at Booker T. Washington High School

Ernie Banks statue at Booker T
Ernie Banks statue at Booker T

The Dallas Examiner

As cookie-cutter apartment complexes pop up across the city and gentrification looms over historic neighborhoods, Dallas is investing in projects that celebrate its past. In what was once Freedman’s Town and is now the city’s premier Arts District, generations of Dallasites gathered to see history immortalized through art.

On the afternoon of Sept. 20, a life-size bronze sculpture of Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, was unveiled outside his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Banks was born in Jim Crow Dallas in 1931 and went on to become a major league baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, signed in 1953. Banks was said to be one of the sport’s most remarkable players, not just for his abilities but for his disposition as well.

Artist Emmanuel Gillespie, who currently serves on the faculty at the Winston School and was a graduate of Booker T., created the work with assistance from three current arts magnet students, Jennifer Huynh, Natalie Carvajal and Bella Najera.

Mayor Mike Rawlings; Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa; biographer Ron Rapoport; Banks’ sister, Edna Banks; and hundreds of past and present students from the high school looked on to witness this joyous and historic moment.

Although Banks had lived to see a statue of his likeness unveiled outside Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2008, this hometown tribute came three years after his passing.

With this new bronze Banks, in the works since 2015 and now installed on the same grass plot that a young Banks used to play football on with a tin can for a ball, Dallas and Booker T. celebrated one of the greats and one of their own.

When Rawlings took to the podium, set up under a big tree at the original entrance to the high school, he expressed enthusiasm for the project.

“This is an opportunity to celebrate, not just Ernie Banks, but a significantly historical part of Dallas. The African American history is amazing when you start to learn what happened in this part of town,” he said.

“We wanted to celebrate sports – we love sports in Texas; we love baseball, and there’s no better baseball player than Mr. Cub himself. And we wanted to support the Arts. … Thank you for making art about sports, about our history and about a great man.”

Referencing the still-fresh injustice against Botham Jean at the hands of officer Amber Guyger last month, Rawlings bridged the past, present and future by highlighting the significance of the event, how far Dallas has come, and where the city must go from here.

“What we do today is as important as ever, and that’s why doing this is important,” Rawlings said. “This city’s heart is still breaking for Botham Jean – who worked just a couple of blocks away from here. You couldn’t have a better citizen in Dallas than Botham. And in some way, one small way, maybe this is a memorial to him as well – that we’re remembering history and what our city can become and how this yesteryear and today comes together.”

He then addressed the Booker T. students in attendance.

“Thank you students: You need to graduate, you need to go to college, you need to come back and help us make the next chapter of Dallas great by remembering the forefathers that were here,” he said.

Hinojosa spoke next, making a joke about the weather in order to reference one of Banks’ most memorable lines.

“Ernie’s favorite saying is: the weather’s so nice, let’s play two,” Hinojosa said.

Last year, Banks was honored in the inaugural class of Dallas ISD’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

The very first donor to the campaign for the Banks project was the Washington-Lincoln Alumni Association. John Thomas, who attended Booker T. in 1959 and now serves as the president of the DFW chapter of the WLAA and as national treasurer, spoke next.

Thomas began his speech with scripture.

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am nothing,” he said. “I thought of that last night when I was thinking of this occasion. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could not have been done without love. Love trumps – always – hate. And you can look around this place and see that it did.”

“It took love to overcome all of the reasons why it didn’t happen before today.”

Thomas was alluding to how racism has kept this baseball icon from being properly celebrated.

“It is very, very overdue. Unfortunately he had to die before he got a chance to see his own hometown honor him this way.”

Rapoport, longtime journalist and most recently the author of the definitive biography on Banks titled Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks, available this spring, gave a history lesson.

Rapoport asked the audience members to turn their heads to look at the modern exterior of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, which was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

“What you can’t see from here is a driveway that leads up to the theatre. Well about 90 years ago, on that driveway, there was a house where Ernie Banks was born and raised. It was a shotgun house; you open the door and you could see through to the back,” he said.

Banks eventually had 11 siblings; they would all share that small shotgun house – a house with no running water, electricity or heat, with an outhouse out back.

“So much has changed here,” Rapoport continued. “This beautiful high school stands as a symbol of everything that a public high school can aspire to. It’s graduated writers and musicians and actors and artists and many others who have done great things. You know the names of some of them – Norah Jones, Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, Edie Brickell, Emmanuel Gillespie.”

“But long before that, when Booker T. was just this one building we’re sitting in front of, it also graduated many important people. One of them of course was Ernie Banks, who’s the greatest baseball player Dallas ever produced. But I think this statue also stands as a tribute and a reminder of others who have graduated from Washington High and from Lincoln High too. I think it stands as a tribute to the generations of doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, civil rights workers and all the others who together made up an emerging professional and middle class in Dallas. And I think it’s just wonderful that this statue is placed on the exact plot of grass that Ernie and his friends played football with a tin can.”

The wind suddenly blew so fiercely that traffic barricades fell over and hit the street and the golden sheet covering the statue loosened to expose the top of a bronze baseball bat. Was this the breath of Banks?

Huynh, Carvajal and Najera along with a faculty member rushed to grab the back and sides of the sheet to keep the statue from peeking out prematurely.

When the speeches finished, Gillespie joined the young artists who helped him to perfect the piece and together they unveiled Ernie Banks – a sculpture of incredible likeness with inviting features that emanate positive energy.

Much of the discussion around monuments these days is negative, focusing on the Confederacy and whether or not the city should be taking statues down. In putting this Ernie Banks statue up, the younger generations can start a new conversation about who their heroes should be and how Dallas can memorialize more admirable aspects and figures of history.

Banks wasn’t just a Hall-of-Fame baseball player who admirably faced racial prejudice as the first Black player for the Cubs. He also served in the U.S. Army, played for the Harlem Globetrotters, and in 2013, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.

With a smile on his face and a relaxed gait, Mr. Sunshine will daily greet the students of Dallas’ first – and for many years, only – high school for African Americans, now widely considered one of the most prestigious public arts schools in the country. While many people living today never got to see Banks play, everybody who walks by will be emboldened by a man that lives on – the aura of a legend forever captured in bronze.

“If Ernie were here,” Rapoport concluded, “I think he’d say the same thing he said 10 years ago when they erected a statue of him outside of Wrigley Field: ‘When I’m not here, I’ll still be here.’”

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