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The historically Black neighborhood of West Oakland is changing, like much of California’s Bay Area—but longtime local residents are working on a project to immortalize their neighborhood’s legacy: the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. A grassroots museum and mural honors the vital contributions of the oft-overlooked women of the Black Panthers. Ivette Feliciano reports.
The historically Black West Oakland neighborhood, in Oakland, California, was once a thriving cultural hub with a bustling music scene. It was also the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. The neighborhood has since changed, but a small museum is honoring the history and efforts of an overlooked but impactful group, the women of the Black Panther Party. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.
During the tech boom of the past 20 years, it is no secret that Bay Area cities are home to some of the fastest rates of gentrification in America. And the historically African American neighborhood of West Oakland, just across the water from downtown San Francisco, is no exception. Since 1980, the Black population has been cut in half, down to less than 25 percent of the current residents. A fact not lost on longtime resident Jilchristina Vest.
I know that something really important to me from the beginning is to try to maintain the community, maintain that this is a Black neighborhood, this is a historically Black neighborhood. I love living in and amongst elders, andI love living amongst children, I love living next to an elementary school. It's still beautiful West Oakland to me.
At the height of the pandemic, Vest felt that she needed to create something positive for her West Oakland community.
I realized I was walking downtown Oakland, and all these gorgeous murals went up, it was block after block of dead black bodies. And I said you know we can't just memorialize what's being done to us, we have to pause and create monuments depicting what it looks like when we do for ourselves. And the Black Panther Party were professionals at that.
The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in 1966, just blocks from Vest's home. Co-founder Huey P. Newton has a mural, a statue, and even Vest's own street has been renamed after him. It's easy to find monuments to the men of this national organization that advocated for the self-defense of African Americans. So Vest decided it was time for a monument to the women of the Black Panther Party.
You know we have 70 percent of the Panthers were women, average age was 18, 19 years old. I realized that if 70 percent of the Panthers are women, what are their names? Who are they? And are they still with us?
To answer this question, Vest sought the guidance of notable Black Panthers like Ericka Huggins and Cheryl Dawson. With a team of artists led by Rachel Wolf Goldsmith, they designed a mural to commemorate the spirit of these women.
The 2,000 square foot project was funded with local grants, as well as hundreds of online donations from supportive neighbors and community members.
I wanted to create something for this community, for the girls that walk by my house, and see themselves represented in a fierce way, and anytime that happens it automatically has you stand taller and it has you fortified in a way that can't come from anything else.
The images are based on the photographs of Black Panther photographer Stephen Shames. His subjects were often anonymous, but their identities are now coming to light.
They were the bones of the organization, and they were the leaders, the rank and file, they played every role that the man played as well, but they were never acknowledged, they were never named.
Vest came up with a plan to change that. With the help of the community, and former Panthers like Dawson and Huggins, Vest has collected the names of hundreds of women who were members of the Black Panthers and she has added them to the mural. And more names are still being submitted through social media and the website: westoaklandmuralproject.org
Where's your name –(Crosstalk)– it's right here.
Let me just say this to you out loud that something holy used you to do this, because you raised us from the dead, you understand resurrected us.
—to be acknowledged.
Because how foreign is that concept.
I just love how people can stop by, and this is what you said you wanted, you know, to see yourself.
For me, I see that, I see those beautiful brown faces, I see me. No. I see me. Because I remember what I looked like and what I felt like when I did the work. I see myself.
Since its completion last summer, there has been a constant stream of visitors to the mural. Vest wondered what she could do next.
Somebody walked by one day, and they could see that the window was empty, and they said, "Wait, is there a museum down there?" And I was like, "There's not yet."
When her downstairs tenants moved out, Vest partnered with artist Lisbet Tellefson, to turn the one-bedroom unit into a museum honoring the women of the Black Panther Party.
So we can figure out when they're all up how you want to walk through the space.
This is absolutely insane, I can't believe how beautiful this is. This is exactly what this space is for.
And this is an introduction.
You won't see many rifles, berets, or militant imagery so often associated with the Panthers. But you will learn about their vast community projects — almost all powered by the labor of women.
And this one, I love.
For Vest, input from former Black Panthers like Huggins, was essential and validating.
She's the longest standing member of the Panther Party, she's an amazing leader, and I wanted to make sure that what I was feeling in my heart, was something that would resonate with her.
After the completion of the project, Huggins met up with Dawson to check out Oakland's newest museum.
Oh my God. They're the grandmothers. You know, and we had to get their approval to go forward.
That's right. And they told us how to be when we were out there.
And they looked at us just like they're looking at us here. Like, are you for real? Let's see what you're going to do.
Or they would say to us, "Sugar did you eat anything today?"
Or, "Are you sure you're going to be alright out there?" "Yes ma'am I'm going to be alright." And they would look at each other, like alright if she says so. And now it resonates because, who's the grandmother now? We are.
Well we might not have even thought we'd live until now.
No, we didn't. No, we did not. How could we, when the FBI was chasing us from morning 'til night, you know?
Alongside artifacts of the Panther's broader political and cultural impact, the museum highlights their many local projects, like children's free breakfast programs, voter registration drives, medical and dental services, a free ambulance program, and elder assistance.
I love this one. Somebody walked into the office in Oakland and said "Can you children get me to the bank, and the grocery, and the doctor?" This man here was probably on the people who took her shopping. Look she has her little notebook. One of the people I will point out to you Arlene called me and said, "They probably live alone most of 'em, they don't have their sons and daughters around anymore."
We need to add to this program visiting them regularly. And so we did.
The museum opened to the public on Juneteenth last year, and people lined up to get in.
In line over here, up the stairs, up the stairs.
It's no surprise to Vest that a museum about the community has become a gathering place, even with social distancing.
It's shown that it's a community project and it's for the community, and for these women, many of whom lived in this community. And the fact that it was going to bring me joy, it has absolutely brought so many other people joy. I feel like the house is asking to be seen, like Black women are asking to be seen. And this is a space that's going to allow that.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
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