The story of Seattle's Black Panther Party
By Cara Solomon
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,
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
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."