He attended Howard University, where he earned a BS in physics in 1946 followed by an MS in physics, in 1948. After receiving his degree, Banks stayed at Howard as a a research associate in physics. In 1952, he accepted a job in the private sector as an electronic engineer at National Electronics, Inc. After two years working in industry, he began teaching physics and mathematics in the public school system of Washington, D.C. He spent the same amount of time teaching before returning to school, himself.
He worked as a research assistant in astronomy at the Georgetown College Observatory while working on his doctorate at Georgetown University. He completed his dissertation on planetary spectroscopy, titled "The First Spectrum of Titanium From 6000 to 3000 Angstroms," involving the properties of light originating from distant sources. In 1961 he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy.
After another year at Georgetown, as a fellow, he became a lecturer and research associate at Georgetown while also teaching at the American University and at Delaware State College. In 1967, he was appointed as a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Delaware State, where he was also made director of the college's observatory. He remained in those posts until September 1, 1969, when he returned to Howard as an associate professor of astronomy. In 1971 the university added an appointment as an associate professor of physics. He remained in that position until his death.
His research interests included determination of orbits, celestial mechanics, high dispersion spectroscopy, and the geodetic determinations from the observations of solar eclipse and satellites. In the 1970s Harvey Washington Banks was a member of the Beltsville Project and supervised the construction of an observatory outside Washington, DC. He also coordinated the Astronomy and Space Seminar for the National Science Teachers' Association.
Dr. Banks married Ernestine Boykin. The couple had four children-Harvey III, Deborah, Dwann, and Darryle. He died in 1979.