Meet 3 lesbians behind the women of the Black Panther Party

Black pride, joy, and love radiate from West Oakland again due to the vision of three women: Jilchristina "Jil" Vest, Lisbet Tellefsen, and Ericka Huggins.

The trio unveiled a 30-foot mural depicting the Women of the Black Panther Party working in the Panthers’ more than 60 community programs on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2021. Women made up 70% of the Black Panther Party yet remained largely invisible. Honoring the women, 260 Panther women’s names were painted on the four panels of the two-story house face out onto Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way.

Vest, who owns the house, anticipates adding more names as more women are discovered.

The Mini Black Panther Party Museum opened six months later inside the first-floor apartment on Juneteenth, June 19, 2021.

Who are these women who created the mural and museum? What was the Black Panther Party? Why was it important for them to honor Panther women in response to the violence against Black people and the outrage displayed at Black Lives Matter movement demonstrations during the summer of 2020?

Jilchristina VestCourtesy of Jilchristina Vest

Jilchristina "Jil" Vest, visionary and curator

Vest was inspired to create the mural and the museum by the #SayHerName campaign and the murder of George Floyd at the knee of police officer former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Rage and calls for change formed much of the messages throughout the summer of 2020. Vest, unsettled by Floyd’s murder, was even more disturbed by the silence surrounding the police murder of Breonna Taylor.

Taylor, a Black medical worker, was shot by police while she slept in her own bed. The police entered her home on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky in March 2020, two and a half months before the public outcry over Floyd's killing. The response was silence, not the outrage that erupted following Floyd’s murder captured on video that went viral.

Feeling a lot of grief and rage, the former music industry professional meditated on how to bring balance and joy back into her life.

"I said, 'I need to find something that's going to make me feel joyful, to make me feel seen, and to make me feel heard,'" recalled the lifelong Black queer activist sitting in her house in the heart of the neighborhood where the Black Panther Party took root for more than 15 years.

Vest admired the murals created memorializing Floyd, Taylor, and many other Black lives lost to police brutality. She pondered how her voice of protest could be heard and how she could demonstrate in a way she was comfortable.

The answer came to her after a walk in downtown Oakland. When she returned home and looked up at her house on the corner of Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way – the very corner where Panthers’ co-founder Newton was fatally shot.

“I am going to put a mural on my house and it's not going to be anything about what has been done to us. It is going to be about ... what it looks like [when] ... we do for ourselves," Vest said.

She decided to honor the Panthers women who remained invisible for 55 years.

Vest was born in Chicago in 1966 the same year that the Panthers came into existence. She moved to Oakland in 1986 when she was 19-years old, four years after the Panthers dissolved. She earned degrees in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and Multicultural Education from San Francisco State University and San Francisco University and then went on to have careers in the nonprofit community and music industry. It felt right to her to honor the women of the party, she said.

The idea for the museum came while Oakland muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith was painting the mural and after Vest’s tenants on the first floor of the house moved out right before the mural’s unveiling. Vest lives on the second floor of the house.

The Mini Black Panther Museum curator Lisbet Tellefsen, left, and one of the original Panther leaders Ericka Huggins, right, sitting inside the museum honoring the Panthers’ legacy.Heather Cassell

Lisbet Tellefsen, curator

A Bay Area native, Tellefsen, a Black lesbian, is a community archivist, collector, and curator. For decades, she has collected Black Panther memorabilia, particularly about Panther women, Angela Davis, and Black LGBTQ culture and political graphics.

She’s curated her archive material for exhibitions, films, media projects, and research, including contributing to the Oakland Museum of California’s successful “All Power To The People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibit. The exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Panthers’ founding in 2016.

Huggins, who is Tellefsen’s partner of 16 years, was on the community committee that helped bring the commemorative show to Oakland’s museum. Her requirement for participating was Panther women would be seen and it became one of the most popular shows in the exhibit.

Fania Davis Jordan originally commissioned Tellefsen to create the 16 Black Panther Party pop-up panels for a three-day exhibition for a restorative justice conference in 2016 at the Oakland Marriott City Center. The exhibit providing an overview of the Panthers was tied to commemorating the Panthers' 50th anniversary.

Davis Jordan’s sister is Black lesbian activist Angela Davis, one of the more prominent female members of the Black Panthers.

Black Panther Party Berkeley chapter leader Cheryl Dawson, center, pointing at her name on the mural honoring the women of the party. Museum curator Lisbet Tellefsen, left, stands next to Dawson and one of the original Panther leaders Ericka Huggins, stands appreciating the moment in the background.Ericka Huggins

Ericka Huggins, mentor

Huggins was a leading member of the Black Panther Party for 14 years. She joined the Panthers when she was 18-years old in 1968. She was the director of the Oakland Community School (1973-1981), founded by the Panthers. She became the first Black person to be appointed to the Alameda County Board of Education during her tenure at the school.

At 13-years old, Huggins, a lesbian, was inspired to commit her life to service at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She did just that, even losing her husband, John Huggins, a fellow Panther, who was murdered leaving her a young, widowed mother and herself being a political prisoner imprisoned for being a Panther. Huggins has been at the forefront of nearly every major movement – HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ, education inside and outside jails and prisons – in the latter half of the 20th century. She continues to speak widely about the Panthers and the causes she’s worked on throughout her life.

Black Panther Land

West Oakland plays a significant role in America’s civil rights movement. In 1966, the Black Panther Party took root and birthed the Black Power Movement calling for racial justice and ending police brutality. Members created innovative community programs that sprouted from the community’s needs. The Panthers dissolved in 1982.

The Panthers were more than “angry Black men with guns who had good fashion sense” said Tellefsen.

Last year's award-winning film, "Judas and the Black Messiah," told the story of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party's Illinois chapter.

Tellefsen noted that the good things the Panthers did and the movement’s impact on many government programs today, such as First 5, get lost in “historical laziness,” she said.

“The Black Panther Party dismisses the notion that we were ‘militant.’ That is not how we would describe ourselves,” Huggins added about the mythology that has grown around the Panthers due to government and media characterization of the movement that has persisted through the decades.

“We were always doing something in service to people,” she said about the Panthers’ mission and creation of the community survival programs. “We knew that we had to be in service to people and their survival pending revolution.

“They were protecting oppressed people from the oppressor,” Vest said about the Panthers’ inclusive coalitions and programs.

The mural honoring the women of the Black Panther Party in West Oakland, CaliforniaHeather Cassell

The Mural and Museum

Vest’s vision for the mural was to convey joy and pride and make Panther women visible by putting 30-foot-tall Black women on the side of her house, “without anybody’s permission and take up as much space as I wanted,” she said

“We wanted people to look at the mural and stand stronger, stand taller, [and] put your shoulders back and say, ‘Those are my people. Those are my ancestors,’” she said.

Vest’s vision for the museum was to showcase the Panthers, especially Panther women, and take control of the narrative.

“My key motivations around the mural and the museum are to … control the narrative, not only of Oakland but the Black Panther Party,” Vest said pointing out that the mural and museum show the Panther’s women and their mission of humanitarianism.

It appears to be working. The mural and museum have attracted 1,000s of people to Vest’s corner of West Oakland.

The panels Tellefsen created for Davis Jordan six years ago are finally living her original vision to create portable banners so the exhibit could have an afterlife after the conference, she said. She was glad to take the panels out of storage and put them to use in their new permanent home at the museum.

Inside the Mini Black Panther Party Museum in West Oakland, California.Heather Cassell

The museum just added another facet deepening the project’s significance. Panther women are front and center in the museum.

“I've seen Black woman get out of their cars and look up at the mural and just start weeping,” she said about their tears of joy and relief to finally be seen.

The mural and exhibit have become a “sacred space” for visitors.

“People tell us they feel like it is a sacred space to them,” Huggins said. “They also say that the things that they learned reading the banners and the captions from the photographs or the pages from the party newspaper are that it isn’t what they were taught.

“We all need healing. We are all broken. We are all hurting for [a] variety of reasons,” Vest added. “I knew that this would heal a multitude of people, men and women, Black and white, young and old.”

The Panther’s legacy is being carried on and celebrated today by what started as the West Oakland Mural Project. The project has recreated some of its programs, such as delivering free bags of groceries to the community at special events.

Visitors can expect to see the mural first before they walk into the museum inside the first apartment in the house. They can walk one block away from the mural and museum to see Newton’s bust created by sculptor Dana King and placed at Mandela Parkway and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way in October 2021.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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