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This Oakland project honors the women of the Black Panther Party
Hari Sreenivasan: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
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.
Ivette Feliciano: At the height of the pandemic, Vest felt that she needed to create something positive for her West Oakland community.
Jilchristina Vest: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Jilchristina Vest: 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?
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Jilchristina Vest: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Jilchristina Vest: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: 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
Cheryl Dawson: 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.
Ericka Huggins: --to be acknowledged.
Cheryl Dawson: Because how foreign is that concept.
Ericka Huggins: I just love how people can stop by, and this is what you said you wanted, you know, to see yourself.
Cheryl Dawson: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: Since its completion last summer, there has been a constant stream of visitors to the mural. Vest wondered what she could do next.
Jilchristina Vest: 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."
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Lisbet Tellefson: So we can figure out when they're all up how you want to walk through the space.
Jilchristina Vest: This is absolutely insane, I can't believe how beautiful this is. This is exactly what this space is for.
Lisbet Tellefson: And this is an introduction.
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Ericka Huggins: And this one, I love.
Ivette Feliciano: For Vest, input from former Black Panthers like Huggins, was essential and validating.
Jilchristina Vest: 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.
Ivette Feliciano: After the completion of the project, Huggins met up with Dawson to check out Oakland's newest museum.
Cheryl Dawson: Oh my God. They're the grandmothers. You know, and we had to get their approval to go forward.
Ericka Huggins: That's right. And they told us how to be when we were out there.
Cheryl Dawson: 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.
Ericka Huggins: Or they would say to us, "Sugar did you eat anything today?"
Cheryl Dawson: 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.
Ericka Huggins: Well we might not have even thought we'd live until now.
Cheryl Dawson: No, we didn't. No, we did not. How could we, when the FBI was chasing us from morning 'til night, you know?
Ivette Feliciano: 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.
Ericka Huggins: 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."
Cheryl Dawson: They didn't.
Ericka Huggins: We need to add to this program visiting them regularly. And so we did.
Ivette Feliciano: The museum opened to the public on Juneteenth last year, and people lined up to get in.
Jilchristina Vest: In line over here, up the stairs, up the stairs.
Ivette Feliciano: It's no surprise to Vest that a museum about the community has become a gathering place, even with social distancing.
Jilchristina Vest: 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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