West Oakland House Mural Brings The Women of The Black Panther Party To The Forefront
A mural on a West Oakland house celebrates the often overlooked stories of the women of the Black Panther party.
On Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way in West Oakland, there’s a bright blue mural on the side of a chocolate brown house. The mural stretches across the entire length of the two story victorian. In block letters, at the top, it says, “Women Of The Black Panther Party.” The mural was created by Oakland resident Jil Vest to center the often-neglected women of the Black Panther Party.
Over the sky blue background of the mural are these 30 foot tall Black women, all with natural hair. One’s in a military stance holding a gun. Another is holding a protest sign with her fist raised in the air, and another one is cradling a small child. One woman is delivering a bag of groceries filled to the brim over a backdrop of hundreds of names written in white paint.
People hover at this intersection. They stop in their cars, get out to take pictures, and chat outside. And on Sunday, February 14, there was an event unveiling the project.
At the unveiling, the muralist, Rachel Wolfe Goldsmith, is spray painting live. And people go up to paint some of the hundreds of names of women of the Black Panther Party. I got to paint my aunt’s name on the wall. Dhameera Ahmad, formerly Carlotta Simon.
“There’s a way in which you have your name said by someone other than yourself ... it in some way confirms your existence. It tells someone that you’re here,” says Jil Vest, the owner of the house.
Last summer, in the midst of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, like so many Black people across the globe, Jil was struggling. So, one day, when she was walking home past the protest murals that line the sides of buildings in Downtown Oakland, Jil got an idea.
Jil says, "It was block after block, name after name, face after face, memorial after memorial, Black person after black person after black person that had been killed — murdered in their youth, by the police. So I decided that to get clarity, I needed a way to find joy because there was no joy anywhere. And I was like, 'I'm going to put a mural on the side of my house!'"
To Jil the plywood murals downtown felt temporary. She wanted to create a mural celebrating the rich histories of Black organizing and activism in Oakland, particularly in West Oakland.
“I moved here into West Oakland because of the Black Panther Party,” she says. “Anytime I think about the party I feel joy because of what they were doing for the people and the children they were feeding, and the elders they were caring for.”
"Never in my wildest dreams, did I ever think that anyone would come to me and say, 'We want to honor your work.'"
But, Jil says, what many people don’t know is that at its height, the Black Panther Party was nearly 70% women. She also says, they were the ones who led many of the social programs that often get neglected in favor of the party’s militancy. And last year, when George Floyd’s name was being circulated far wider than Breonna Taylor’s, Jil says it became clear what kind of mural she needed to paint.
“It was all 'Say Her Name,' this, that,” she says. “And it just tumbled out! Like, has anybody ever acknowledged the women? Has anybody ever created anything for them? And I said, 'You know what? This is going to be a mural specifically for the women of the Black Panther Party, celebrating and honoring and saying thank you to them.”
Over a Zoom call, Reverend Cheryl Dawson lovingly greets Ericka Huggins. They’re both former members of the Black Panther Party who met later in life while creating programs for women in prison.
When I ask them about their initial reactions to the mural, Cheryl says: “I was shocked. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that anyone would come to me and say, 'We want to honor your work.' I was stunned. And I thought, well, alright, because I thought of all of the colored girls, all of the poor black girls who lived on the wrong side of the tracks who came and brought this work to fruition.”
Ericka and Cheryl have similar stories of finding their ways to the party. In 1968, Ericka was at Lincoln College in Philadelphia with her future husband John Huggins. Someone gave her a copy of Ramparts magazine.
“The feature story was about the black Panther party for self-defense,” Ericka says.
She handed the magazine to John, waited as he read the article and then —
“We looked at each other and I said, ‘I want to go to California and join the Black Panther Party.’ And he said, ‘I want to go too.’ It was just like that — it was a synchronicity!”
About a month later, Ericka and John said goodbye to John’s family, packed up, and headed across the country to the Los Angeles chapter of the party.
Cheryl was at Cal State Hayward when it happened to her.
“I left school to go hear Bobby Seale speak one day,” Cheryl says. “And when I heard it, I simply decided to throw everything down and join the party. And that's exactly what I did. I left that day. I cut everything loose, dropped out of school. Didn't do any part-time work. Just fortified myself against all the barrage of complaints that were coming from all the elders in my family. I went to serve the people.”
Cheryl was 22 when she joined. Ericka was only 18. And, I have to say I was surprised to hear that they were so young when they fully committed themselves to the party. A few years younger than I am now. They had full lives, with things to lose, still figuring out what kind of adults they wanted to be. And yet, they put that all aside. For them, the choice was clear. Black people were dying.
“We did everything and then some. And for 19, 20 hours a day, just like the men. We did everything then men could do in addition to some of us, like Cheryl and I, raising our little children by ourselves,” Ericka says.
According to Ericka, “There were more women in the Black Panther Party than men, and those community survival programs were sustained by women. Partially because the local law enforcement across the country, and the FBI, and even the CIA, with their obsessive focus on black men — arresting them first, killing them first.”
Cheryl recounts one of her days as a member of the party: “When I would get up, it was dark and I would get my little baby together, pack her little, pretty clothes and get in my car and drive myself from Oakland to Berkeley. And it was always a harrowing ride because the FBI followed me every day, all day long, every place that I went.”
“But I kept going not because I ever thought I was brave or because I thought I was courageous, but simply because it had to be done. When I would arrive at the headquarters — well, then, now it's time to put my little baby down and put her in the arms of one of my sisters so I could get ready for the breakfast program.”
The Free School Children Breakfast Program — probably one of the party’s most well known community initiatives.
“The beauty was — I can’t get past this — the community trusted us enough to send their most valuable gifts to us, their children,” Cheryl says. “So when we gave their children breakfast, we didn't only give them breakfast. We gave them a loving preview and invitation to their day.”
Cheryl remembers putting vaseline on the children’s cheeks and hair and encouraging them before they went off on their days: “Give them a kiss on the cheek, straighten up their little jackets and tell them to go out and be mighty because I knew I was letting them into a world that didn't want them.”
According to Ericka and Cheryl, this kind of “movement over everything” mentality took a toll on them. They say it’s not until later in life that they learned about any notions of self care: “The women in the movement were not used to—we didn't really pause. And we were serving the people, body and soul, but we forgot sometimes that we were part of the people,” Ericka says, “I think is very, very important for people, in particularly women of color, to take care of ourselves because we’re always taught to take care of someone else first or instead.”
Fast forward to February 14, 2020 to the celebration of this mural. There’s a socially distanced event happening in person. The Women of The Black Panther Party Mural Project is giving away over 300 bags of groceries, in the tradition of the Black Panther Party.
The legacies and stories of this Black Panther Party are palpable on the surface of this event. Former party members are chatting with other Oakland residents. When I stepped back and looked at the mural of tall women of the Black Panther Party, I could almost hear and even feel the stories of women, like my aunt, Ericka, and Cheryl. I was teary eyed. It was powerful. It was emotional.
Jil says, that is the exact intent of the mural. "That feeling of being seen as a little black girl or a black woman is indescribable. And, in my community I wanted the mural to do that. I wanted black women, black girls, black children to be able to pass my house or stop at my house and be reminded of their ancestors. Be reminded of these freedom fighters that came before them. Be reminded of their permanence and be reminded of the fact that they have the right to take up space, and they can take up as much space as they want to. And they don't need anybody's permission.”
They can even be 30 feet tall. Jil says she’s in the process of making her house a historical landmark. So, if there’s one thing she knows, it’s that even with the changing landscape of West Oakland, these larger than life women and these hundreds of names will be here.