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Vest, owner of the house, plans to add more names as new women are discovered.

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

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

Vest JilchristinaCourtesy of Jilchristina Vest

Jilchristina “Jil” Vest, visionary and curator

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

Rage and calls for change formed much of the messaging throughout the summer of 2020. Vest, disturbed by Floyd’s murder, was further disturbed by the silence surrounding the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

Taylor, a black medical worker, was shot dead by police as she slept in her own bed. Police entered her home with 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 after the killing of Floyd captured on video that went viral.

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

“I said, ‘I need to find something that’s going to make me happy, make me feel seen and make me feel heard,'” recalls the lifelong black queer activist sitting in her home in the heart of the neighborhood where the Black Panther Party has taken root for over 15 years.

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

The answer came to him after a stroll through downtown Oakland. When she got 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’m going to put a mural on my house and it won’t be anything about what was done to us. It’s gonna be about… what it looks like [when] …we do for ourselves,” Vest said.

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

Vest was born in Chicago in 1966, the same year the Panthers were born. She moved to Oakland in 1986 at age 19, four years after the Panthers disbanded. She earned degrees in black studies, women’s studies, and multicultural education from San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco, then continued her career in the nonprofit community and the music industry. It felt right to honor women in 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 just before the mural was unveiled. Vest lives on the second floor of the house.

Mini Black Panther Museum curator Lisbet Tellefsen, left, and one of the Panthers’ early executives, Ericka Huggins, right, sit inside the museum honoring the Panthers’ legacy.Heather Cassel

Lisbet Tellefsen, curator

A native of the Bay Area, Tellefsen, a black lesbian, is a community archivist, collector and curator. For decades, she has collected Black Panther memorabilia, particularly on female Panthers, Angela Davis, and Black LGBTQ culture and political graphics.

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

Huggins, who has been Tellefsen’s partner for 16 years, was part of the community committee that helped bring the memorial show to the Oakland Museum. His requirement to participate was that female Panthers be seen and it became one of the most popular shows at the exhibition.

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

Davis Jordan’s sister is black lesbian activist Angela Davis, one of the most prominent women in the Black Panthers.

Cheryl Dawson, leader of the Black Panther Party Berkeley chapter, center, pointing to her name at the mural honoring the women of the party. Museum curator Lisbet Tellefsen, left, stands next to Dawson and one of the Panthers’ early leaders, Ericka Huggins, enjoys 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 at the age of 18 in 1968. She was principal of Oakland Community School (1973-1981), founded by the Panthers. She became the first black person to be appointed to the Alameda County School Board during her tenure at the school.

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

black panther land

West Oakland plays an important role in the American civil rights movement. In 1966, the Black Panther Party took root and gave birth to the Black Power Movement calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality. Members have created innovative community programs that grew out of community needs. The Panthers disbanded in 1982.

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

Last year’s award-winning film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” tells the story of Fred Hampton, the president of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.

Tellefsen noted that the good things the Panthers have done 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 rejects the idea that we were ‘militant.’ and media of the movement that has persisted over the decades.

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

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

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

The fresco and the museum

Vest’s vision for the mural was to convey joy and pride and make Panther women visible by placing 30-foot-tall black women on the side of his house, “without anyone’s permission and taking as many as much space as I wanted,” she said.

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

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

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

It seems to work. The mural and museum drew thousands to the Vest corner of West Oakland.

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

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

The museum has just added another facet deepening the scope of the project. Panther women are at the center of the museum.

“I’ve seen black women get out of their cars and look at the mural and start crying,” she said of their tears of joy and relief at finally being seen.

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

“People tell us they feel like it’s a sacred space for them,” Huggins said. “They also say that what they learned from reading the banners and the captions of the photographs or the pages of the party newspaper is that this is not what they were taught.

“We all need healing. We are all broken. We all suffer for [a] various reasons,” Vest added. “I knew it would heal a multitude of people, men and women, black and white, young and old.”

The Panther’s legacy is carried on and celebrated today by what began as the West Oakland Mural Project. The project has recreated some of its programs, such as free delivery of grocery bags to the community during special events.

Visitors can expect to view the mural before entering the museum inside the first apartment of the house. They can walk a block 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.

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