Family members of Ernestine Bankston remember the longtime Berkeley resident as a sharp, intelligent woman who enjoyed life.

Bankston, who lived in the city for over 30 years, died in a South Berkeley apartment fire on Aug. 3.  She was 85.

Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Bankston briefly lived in Michigan before moving to San Francisco in the 1960s. She had a long career working for General Motors, where she eventually retired from.

She never had children but was married nearly 40 years to James Bankston, who had four children and passed away about 10 years ago. His granddaughter, Cardia Swift, lived with the couple when they moved from San Francisco to Berkeley in the 1980s.

Swift said Bankston was a “firecracker” who always spoke her mind. In her younger years, she was a working woman who enjoyed hanging out with her girlfriends, smoking, drinking margaritas and enjoying herself.

“She always made sure to have her nails done, her hair done and she had a closet full of clothes,” Swift said. 

The couple would take Swift and her sister to the Circus Circus hotel in Reno, Nevada.

Bankston enjoyed watching true crime shows and always kept up with the news, engaging in conversations about current events with family and friends. Among those who knew her well, she also had a reputation for speaking her mind and never holding back.

Swift said Bankston was a joyous, life-loving person into her late years but retreated a bit after the death of her husband about a decade ago.

“She adored my grandfather, and she really loved him a lot, so when he died, she thought ‘It’s time for me to go.’”

She continued living in Berkeley after his passing and had family in nearby Oakland. Her brother was staying with her the night before the fire broke out in her home at the William Byron Rumford Sr. Plaza apartment complex at Ashby Avenue and Sacramento Street, but he left early in the morning for dialysis, according to Berkeley Fire investigator Dori Tieu.

The cause of the fire has not yet been finalized, but Tieu said it likely began from a discarded cigarette in the garbage bin of Bankston’s bedroom. The Alameda County coroner’s office has not yet determined the cause of death.

Swift said Bankston’s final wishes were to forgo the ceremony and be laid to rest next to her husband, who was a war veteran. She was buried at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Solano County alongside James Bankston.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...