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Former slave’s life honored at African American Museum

Elder+Marilyn+James%2C+of+Carbondale%2C+indicates+to+a+1937+image+of+her+great-great-grandfather%2C+the+Rev.+D.+Smith+Banks%2C+during+her+%22From+Slavery+to+Greatness%22+speech+Saturday%2C+Nov.+5%2C+2016%2C+at+the+African+American+Museum+in+the+University+Mall.+%28Morgan+Timms+%7C+%40Morgan_Timms%29
Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, indicates to a 1937 image of her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. D. Smith Banks, during her

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, indicates to a 1937 image of her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. D. Smith Banks, during her "From Slavery to Greatness" speech Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, indicates to a 1937 image of her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. D. Smith Banks, during her "From Slavery to Greatness" speech Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

By Shannon Allen

For some people, looking into family history is a fun pastime. For ordained minister Elder Marilyn James, it was to inspire others.

Elder James, who graduated from SIU in 1975, spoke Saturday afternoon at the African American Museum in University Mall about her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. D. Smith Banks, a former slave who managed to become a minister and own a restaurant. The discussion focused on the struggles her ancestor overcame, as well as those other family members endured throughout history.

Now an assistant minister at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Carbondale, Elder James decided to rifle through her family tree to learn about and honor her past.

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“I encourage young people to talk to their elders,” she said. “I wish I would’ve talked to mine earlier to get more information because there’s missing pieces and I can’t talk to them now.”

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, gestures to a 1937 image of her great-great-grandfather, Rev. D. Smith Banks, during her "From Slavery to Greatness" speech Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, gestures to a 1937 image of her great-great-grandfather, Rev. D. Smith Banks, during her “From Slavery to Greatness” speech Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

The details of Banks’ life were passed down to Elder James over generations. Using pictures and quotes plastered on poster boards lining the tiny room, Elder James depicted her family history to the crowd.

She told the story of Banks, a Mississippi slave taken into captivity from Africa who became a father of 10 children and lived to be 105. During the presentation, she marveled at how far her family has come.

“He would be so proud to see he has successful people in his family who have gone to college, owned businesses and became ministers themselves,” Elder James said.

Elder James said she got a ticket to President Barack Obama’s inauguration when her late father, the Rev. Robert James, was sick in the hospital. Elder James’ friend told her to stay with her father, but her father told her different.

“He told me he wanted me to go and represent the people who never got a chance to vote,” Elder James said. “I was proud and overwhelmed to be able to carry my ancestors there with me.”

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, gives her speech "From Slavery to Greatness" on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Elder Marilyn James, of Carbondale, gives her speech “From Slavery to Greatness” on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at the African American Museum in the University Mall. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

The Rev. Lawrence James, Elder James’ older brother, said he was touched to see photographs of his past family members.

“It’s such an accomplishment because we came from humble beginnings to where we are now,” Lawrence James said. “We have God to thank for bringing us all the way.”

Elder said the lesson to be taken away from her family’s struggles is to never give up hope.

“These were people who were resilient, believed in God and allowed God to guide them and they were successful because of that,” she said.

Staff writer Shannon Allen can be reached at 618-536-3326, [email protected] or on Twitter @ShannonAllen_DE.

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