Nearly lost to the archives of history is the story of an incredible man, Lucius Banks. Not only does he have an awesome name, he was also the very first American professional rugby player.
A natural athlete, Banks was scouted while playing the US deviation of rugby in New York by a representative of Hunslet Rugby League Club. Despite having never played or watched any code of rugby, Banks sailed across the Atlantic and spent a year as pro rugger in Northern England.
Born in 1885 near Richmond, VA, Banks’ family moved to Artlington, MA near Boston when he was a young boy. There, excelled at academics and sports, being a star pitcher in and writer for the school magazine in High School.
He joined the 9th Cavalry of the US Army, known as a “Colored Unit,” and was stationed at West Point from 1908 to 1912 where he taught the art of horse riding to soldiers. He also played quarterback for West Point football, where he was scouted by a representative of the Hunslet Rugby League Club in 1911 and offered a contract to come to Northern England and play professionally.
Lucius Banks made his debut on the wing against York and scored a try in his first match before 6,000 spectators on the 27th January 1912, with the match program announcing the signing of Lucius Banks, a black American cavalryman, who was spotted playing football by a Hunslet committee man on business in New York.
A local newspaper commented, “L Banks gave every satisfaction to our supporters in his first attempt to play Northern Union football, and showed plainly that as soon as he gets thoroughly conversant with the game, he will be strong in both attack and defence.”
But not all of the locals were hospitable. Many newspapers out of Leeds criticised Hunslet for signing “a coloured coon” and framed the signing as a publicity stunt – “Gimmick of Colored Players from America” – at the detriment of up and coming local players.
Banks went on to score in his first four matches and had been moved from the wing into the number 10 shirt as pivot, utilizing his quarterbacking skills.
He gave it his best go at settling in locally, working with a local saddler on his off days. But ultimately, life in Northern England was not for Banks and he returned to Boston on New Year’s Eve, 1912.
Back in the States, Banks continued his military career, joining the 349th Field Artillery and seeing action in France during WWI. After the war, Banks became a Boston police officer in 1919, serving for 27 years. But there was one exceptional blip in 1922, a racist driven charge against Banks by a white man he had arrested for accosting women on the street. Support from state legislators saw Banks re-instated, noting he was framed out of the police force for being black.
When Banks passed away in 1955, the flags in Arlington, MA flew at half mast in his honor. Acknowledged for his stellar military and police career, but likely without any recognition of his magnificent feats in 1912.
It’s notable that his son, Richard L. Banks, went on to become a prominent Civil Rights laywer.
We see you Lucius, we thank you, and may you rest in power.