The story of Seattle's Black Panther Party
Seattle Times reporter
Some of them had tough stories to tell, from the death of a brother to the killing of men in Vietnam. At times, Janet Jones would stop filming, just to give her subjects some room.
Then she would turn the camera on again. Because to get the complete picture of the Black Panther Party, she wanted to know these men and women down deep: who they were before, during and after they joined the political movement that shaped their lives.
"You see the whole journey," said Jones, 47.
Over the past year, Jones has taken more than a dozen oral histories for the Seattle Black Panther Party History and Memory Project, a Web site and teaching tool she envisioned as a student at the University of Washington. On Saturday, the project (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/BPP.htm) had its official launch at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in Seattle, with party members answering questions from the public.
Though it was a small chapter, the Seattle BPP lasted longer than most, working in the community from 1968 until 1978, a period of intense social upheaval sparked largely by the Vietnam War.
Panther members moved around town in black berets and leather jackets, spreading a message of black power and armed self-defense. They set up a breakfast program and a health clinic.
Some saw them as thugs. Others saw them as heroes. Jones was always fascinated by their presence.
"They were this very powerful force in the community," she said. "You didn't mess with them."
Jones' interest in the party was renewed last spring, when members held their first reunion in Seattle. A single mother, she was pursuing a degree at the UW at the time and working at the university. She proposed the idea of the Web site to history professor James Gregory, director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
Now it's part of that ongoing project (www.civilrights.washington.edu). The Black Panther section features photographs, articles, party publications and a transcript from the 1970 congressional investigation into the chapter's activities. Lesson plans for 11th-grade teachers will be added soon.
Several people helped out with the Web site, but Jones did most of the work on the oral histories. She was a natural at interviewing, knowing just when to speak and when to stay silent, said Gregory, her former professor. "It all hinged on Janet," he said. It was a one-woman show."
The histories come from people at all levels of the party. Mark Cook talks about how he started a Panther chapter while serving time in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. Leon Hobbs tells how he helped found a health clinic that is now the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.
No member is given more focus than another on the Web site. "That's the richness of this project," said Aaron Dixon, co-founder of the chapter, and Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate.
Many of the members told Jones the party provided the best years of their lives. They felt a sense of purpose, they told her, and the power to do good.
But some were clearly conflicted. Bobby White, a Vietnam veteran who was the Panthers' lieutenant of information, said he cringes now when people recognize his face from that famous poster of the Black Panthers standing on the steps of the state Capitol, guns in their arms.
"As you get older, you get hung up on the ghost of your past," said White, 67, a retired gardener. "There are things I'm not really proud of, that I did or I said."
Jones said the fact that she is African American helped put many at ease in interviews, though some were still wary. Women in particular did not want to get into what they saw as the ugly parts of the party. Jones is still trying to get those women on tape.
"You need to tell a whole truth."
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company