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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.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his great-grandmother’s purchase of the Hope Diamond, Nashville resident Joseph Gregory released a new book to honor its history.
The Hope Diamond: Evalyn Walsh McLean and the Captivating Mystery of the World’s Most Alluring Jewel examines the mysteries of the 45.52 carat blue diamond. This excellent tome also explores the life of gold mining heiress and Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who was the longest and last private owner of the jewel.
The Story of the Hope Diamond Which Ruined Its Owners' Lives youtu.be
The Hope Diamond is now valued at $250 million and currently stands as the most popular exhibit at the Smithsonian.
"The Hope Diamond went into the Smithsonian in 1958, and it's still the Number One exhibit," Gregory says proudly. "Over 9 million people view the diamond each year and stand in line for two hours (to do so)."
Originally from Louisville, Ken., Gregory splits his time between Nashville and New York. He travels around the world to speak about the Hope Diamond and its important legacy.
"I feel like the luckiest person in the world to share the history of the Hope Diamond," says Gregory, who had previously authored the book Queen of Diamonds: The Fabled Legacy of Evalyn Walsh McLean. "It's my obligation in this generation that we live in. We need to hear these stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents. They lived harder than we did. But I'm just trying to have fun with it and get people to realize what they have. I love that this legacy is continuing on."
Evalyn, only 22, purchased the Hope Diamond in 1911 from Cartier for a mere $180,000. This after an illustrious list of former owners had faced turmoil during their ownership.
Evalyn herself experienced difficulties in the years after she bought the jewel: her first son died while she and her husband Ned were traveling to the Kentucky Derby; Ned was later committed to a mental institution; and the death of her only daughter, Evie McLean, in 1946 was a particularly troubling loss.
Her great-grandson acknowledges the diamond’s legendary curse, but accepts the fact that "She always said that bad luck objects are lucky," Gregory notes. "She said it made her fingers tingle when she felt it. Many kings and queens have come to tragic ends while they were in possession of it. Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine (after wearing it). But my mother (Mamie) used to tease on it (the curse)."
Gregory instead chooses to focus on Evalyn's philanthropic efforts. In describing Evelyn as a "caretaker, mother and friend," Gregory takes special note of her warm and welcoming spirit and how she used the jewel to improve the lives of others. She acted as one of the founding members of the Red Cross and assisted veterans in World Wars I and II. Her extravagant life---"She threw such lavish parties and you'd never know who you'd see there," Gregory says---left her and the family under financial strain upon her death.
"Their big curse was money and that's what I've been taught," Gregory says. "It ruined the family. Evalyn died cash-poor and asset rich. When she died, the diamond went into probate and was going to be cut up into sections for the three other grandchildren. No one wanted to touch the diamond because of the curse."
Gregory took on the challenge that his family members would not. With business and life partner Chuck Rapp, Gregory formed Hope Diamond Collection, Inc. His fragrance Fable was nominated for a FIFI award (the leading award in the perfume industry) in 2000, and in recent years he's carried a firm commitment to telling the story behind the Hope Diamond. It's a story that, according to Gregory, revolves around life's most vital forces: family, friends and faith.
"Anyone can write a check out for anything, but it's how you spend your time and how you give your time," he says. "I try to teach the next generation to do that; I try to be the best example to what I can with what I have. I'm using what I have to help others."
"I encourage those who are afraid to have a voice and speak out," he adds. "You need to get out and show who you are and be proud of that. I always say, 'It's you that has you.'"
How do you offer hope in the face of no hope, in the face of hopelessness? Talking to authors Ellen Matzer and Valerie Hughes.
Before World AIDS Day 2021, I had the great privilege to sit down with Ellen Matzer, RN, CCRN, and Valery Hughes, FNP, RN authors of the book, NURSES ON THE INSIDE: STORIES OF THE HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC IN NYC.
When a friend suggested that Ellen write a book about her experience as a nurse caring for AIDS patients, establishing the first AIDS wards and clinic, she initially blew it off, but in the summer of 2017 she started thinking about it and began writing down her memories and stories. Realizing that something was missing, she reached out to Valerie Hughes, who she worked with, and started a collaboration. Two years later, the book NURSES ON THE INSIDE was complete.
Talking About: Nurses On The Inside youtu.be
The day I sat down with Ellen and Valerie to talk about the book and their experience, one of my first questions was if they had any idea of what they were seeing would be the enormous pandemic to come, and neither had the slightest idea. They explained that it was uncommon for nurses in different hospitals to talk about their cases; there was no method of sharing information, no social media, no cell phones. Valerie would be one of the founding members of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care because they saw the need.
Ellen explained that there was no AIDS specialty or dedicated care initially. The first one was at the former Saint Clare's hospital located in Hell's Kitchen, which Valerie describes as a "horrendous part of the city." The hospital was run down, without many of the basics, from air conditioning and furniture to chart holders. No one wanted to work there.
Ellen describes how, except Nurses and Doctors, anyone else who was willing to work was hired and learned as they went along, from nursing assistants and orderlies to unit secretaries.
"Anybody that walked into the door of Saint Clare's got hired and trained to do something" - Ellen
Valerie adds that you had a job if you weren't afraid because so many people were afraid and would not care for people with HIV. Early in the book, they share their experience with the ignorance and fear, not only of the virus but the LGBTQ community describing how a colleague was overheard saying that "they deserved it," referring to gay men contracting HIV.
But it wasn't just the fear, ignorance, and lack of resources; there was no treatment. This was pre any cocktail, pre-AZT. In the book, Ellen asks Valerie, "Do you think we help?" to which I ask if that was a common question they asked themselves.
"Did we actually help anybody? We didn't save anybody, that's for sure. We didn't save anybody's life. I'm not even sure that we really prolonged anybody's life back then." – Ellen
Ellen says that she thinks they relieved suffering, relieved pain, kept people clean, and tried to come up with different things patients might eat to gain weight. She describes how they would mix Carnation Instant Breakfast with milk and then put that on cereal; they would put butter, mayonnaise, and syrup on anything they could to try and get patients a few extra calories.
Valerie adds that they were very present in patients' lives, which was the value-added. People did not die alone. Even for patients who were not in the hospital, Ellen, Valerie, and other staff would visit them so they would always have somebody see them every day to know they were cared for and were important.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was identified in 1983, and It would be almost four more years before the first treatment for AIDS, AZT, would become available. By then, thousands had died.
We discuss the activism that came about due to HIV/AIDS and how the LGBTQ community came together; groups like ACT UP and Valerie describe her first research job with Community Research Initiative that was co-housed with ACT UP in Chelsea witnessing ACT UP. When I asked if they were surprised by the activism, Valerie added, "finally, gay men just stood up and said, fuck no, we're not putting up with this anymore!"
Most people don't realize that it is a result of the AIDS crisis/epidemic that we have a patient's bill of rights. Today, patients have access to what healthcare professionals write in their charts and have recourse if they are not treated with dignity and respect.
Ellen shares with me that she had just finished a book by Peter Staley, one of the founders of ACT UP Titled Never Silent that chronicles the history of ACT UP and the interactions between him, Larry Kramer, who was another founder, and Anthony Fouci.
"People assume that because we were taking care of people, we were not activists. I mean, we were activists in regard to taking care of our one-to-one patients or one to two or one to three patients. We were activists for them, advocating for their health and safety as much as we could, but we weren't out there holding protests." - Ellen
After 40 years and millions of lost lives, there is still no cure for HIV, and while there are new drugs that allow many people to live with this deadly virus, it is estimated that up to one million people around the world died from AIDS in 2020. I ask if there was a turning point in that pandemic where they felt like even if it couldn't be cured, it could be controlled, and Valerie points to 1995 when AZT, the first drug to treat HIV, was approved. Other advances and drug cocktails would follow and Valerie said, "And then, all of a sudden, people stopped being so sick."
While we have come a long way from the days when there was no treatment and infection was considered a death sentence, we also have a second generation who have and are growing up without a personal understanding of what it was like. Despite the new drugs that can allow an individual to reach an undetectable viral load and PREP drugs, the new enemy in the fight against HIV/AIDS is complacency.
Both Ellen and Valerie agree that education is the key because those most at risk face socioeconomic disadvantages that often include a lack of education and access. For those of us who were around initially, it is our responsibility to ensure that the current and future generations have a frame of reference and understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and all the unfinished lives that were lost.
To learn more about Ellen and Valerie, visit their website www.nursesontheinside.com, their book NURSES ON THE INSIDE: Stories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NYC is available on Amazon. To watch, listen to or read my entire interview with Ellen and Valerie, visit my www.Espressotalks.com.
I am a huge lover of history and usually jump at the chance to visit any historic sites when I travel. What I didn’t realize about Charleston, South Carolina is that I would be walking into a history book. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t do much research before traveling to Charleston. Sometimes I like to visit a destination without any expectations.
One of the first things I did when I arrived was jump on a walking tour. Bulldog Tours organizes a variety of tours including haunted history, culinary and LGBTQ history tours, so of course that is the one I chose. My knowledgeable guide Zach and I spent two hours strolling around downtown Charleston visiting many of the historic sites of the city while he recanted tales of the city’s harsh past. He also included some LGBTQ historical facts, and we visited some significant sites along the way.
Charleston, South Carolina - Pride Journeys youtu.be
Charleston was one of only three walled cities in North America and the historic society has imposed some of strictest rules and regulations in the country to ensure that the city remains well-preserved. Charleston sits on a peninsula surrounded by two rivers which lead to the Atlantic Ocean, so it became one of the earliest port cities in the country due to its geography. It is also extremely walkable, giving it a European feel. I was able to walk almost everywhere I visited with the exception of a few off-the-beaten path restaurants.
A person can’t visit Charleston without learning about its controversial past. Given its location as I described earlier, the city was a key port that was responsible for the sale and transport of enslaved Africans. Numerous plantations still exist throughout the region including McLeod Plantation, a former slave plantation located on James Island. The plantation is considered an important Gullah heritage site, preserved in recognition of its cultural and historical significance to African-American and European-American cultures. The plantation grounds include slave cabins, a gin house, and gardens. The property has served in many capacities over the years including a Confederacy Hospital, a burial ground for slaves and Union soldiers, and a headquarters office for the Freedmen's Bureau.
Touring a plantation can be emotionally draining, so after grabbing a quick bite at Leon’s Oyster Shop, head to the South Carolina Aquarium to lighten the mood. My main reason for visiting this aquarium was to tour its renowned sea turtle hospital and rehabilitation center. Guests are given the chance to learn about all of the turtles at the center including how they were injured as well as their path the recovery and ultimate release back into the ocean. The aquarium also features a wonderful stingray touch pool where guests can feed the rays. I’ve done this activity many times in the past, but I can’t remember the last time the rays were so excited and friendly.
After a long day of touring the city, head to The Loutrel, a brand-new boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Charleston. The elegantly appointed property is conveniently located to almost every attraction in the city and just a block away from the City Market. The 50-room property has a 24-hour fitness center, mezzanine level where friends can gather and enjoy complimentary snacks and beverages as well as a rooftop patio boasting panoramic views of the city. My corner room contained a living area, large bedroom with king-size bed and a bathroom complete with a walk-in shower. The property is so new, I am pretty confident that I may have been the first guest to stay in that particular room. After a quick wardrobe change, grab a signature cocktail at Veranda Lounge before heading out for the evening.
For dinner, check out The Grocery, about a 25-minute walk from the hotel. Begin your meal with the Marinated Beet, served with Granny Smith apple, walnut, feta, and herb-tahini yogurt. The restaurant prides itself of its fresh produce and this dish was a testament to their vision. If you visit with family or friends, I recommend sharing the Lowcountry Seafood Pilau, basically Charleston’s version of paella, served with shrimp, clams and fried fish over a bed of rice.
Charleston is home to one LGBTQ bar, so after dinner at The Grocery, head over to Dudley’s on Ann, the oldest gay bar in the city. The space hosts drag performances throughout the week as well as a small dance floor.
Even though there is only technically one LGBTQ nightlife venue in the city, the people of Charleston are pretty laid back and non-judgmental. It has an East Coast sophistication and many of the locals told me they feel comfortable expressing affection in non-LGBTQ specific establishments as well.
I had the opportunity to speak with Harlen Greene, a local historian and archivist who most recently began a project to collect materials and documentation about Charleston’s LGBTQ history. “Charleston prides itself in its history but sells various versions of its history to people,” Green mentioned. “History is an elite club, so finally LGBTQ people came and started telling me about their history.”
In 2018, an initiative called The Real Rainbow Row was launched, to collect photographs, diaries, memoirs, religious and institutional records, as well as Pride, bar, and other items related to Charleston’s LGBTQ history. Input and suggestions from individuals regarding archival materials and oral histories are eagerly sought and tax-deductible financial contributions are necessary to keep the project active.
Wake up early the next morning and enjoy the complimentary breakfast as The Loutrel before setting out to explore the city. I suggest heading south from the hotel as that is where many of the stately mansions are located. As you get closer to the tip of the peninsula, the houses become grander in stature. Swing by Rainbow Row, a collection of 13 colorfully painted homes along East Bay Street. It isn’t a gayborhood unfortunately, but it does make for some wonderful Instagram photos. End your tour at Riley Waterfront Park, home of the city’s iconic Pineapple Fountain.
Before you depart Charleston, stop by Rodney Scott’s BBQ for a taste of true South Carolina BBQ. The award-winning establishment is home to delicious melt-in-your-mouth BBQ and is famous for their pulled pork. I decided to try a little of everything, but given how much I walked on this trip, I decided to treat myself.
To book your Charleston gaycation, visit www.Orbitz.com/Pride