Central Headquarters of the Black Panther Party 1971-1972

By Billy X Jennings

Central Headquarters of the BPP #2

By 1970, the Black Panther Party was under full attack from the federal, state and local Pigs and their agents of oppression throughout America. Panthers were being killed, offices raided and Panthers locked up daily. Many went underground or into exile. Huey P. Newton and the Central Committee made a decision to move our many offices into the heart of the Black community so that we would not be isolated at night. Many of our offices were storefront offices on Main Streets with not many houses and no people around at night. That made it easy for the police to isolate the office from the community.

Central HQ was to set the example by moving from Shattuck Ave in North Oakland into the heart of West Oakland's Black community in 1970. Our new location was 1048 Peralta Street and our name changed from National Headquarters to Central Headquarters. Our new location was a two story Victorian house built in the 1930's. It sat in the middle of a long block surrounded by other Victorian houses on both sides of the street with a store on the corner (Vincent's). The community was a poor, working class neighborhood which was 90% Black. Two blocks down the street (12th) was the West Oakland Community Center that had been in the community about a year before we moved in. You couldn't tell from looking which house was a Panther office, except for the Black and Blue Panther sign in the front yard, which read Central Headquarters BPP. I think Emory painted it and it looked good.

It was an honor to work at Central HQ; the heart beat of the Party. Most of the Central Committee worked out of Central. The Ministry of Information was located on the second floor and this is where the Black Panther Newspaper was laid out weekly. There were 3 1/2 rooms upstairs. People like our Minster of Culture Emory Douglas, Judi Douglas, Elaine Brown, Phyllis Jackson, Gwen Goodlow, Joan Kelly, Brenda Presley, Malik Edwards, Michael Fultz, Gloria Abernethy, John Seale, and Big Man were on the newspaper staff. Lauren Williams also had an office upstairs. She was our Party Photographer.

The newspaper staff worked hard and only had a few days off before they started on the next issue. Many a night the newspaper staff worked all night to make the deadline of having the paper ready by Tuesday night so it could be printed on Wednesday. I would see the staff sleeping in chairs and on the floor. They didn't get the credit they deserve. I didn't like Elaine, she was a witch, but she worked hard on the paper. Under her management, the paper got better.

I worked downstairs, and everyone assigned to Central was under the direct supervision of the Central Committee. Robert Bay was Officer of the Day. June Hilliard (Assistant Chief of Staff) was over him and then the Central Committee. Robert Bay (Big Rob) was my former captain from the East Oakland office. I knew him very well and we had a very good understanding. He played an important role in my development as Panther.

If I were to give you a short tour, it would go like this. We had a small fence around the front yard of the office that looked like all the others on the block. Once you opened the gate and walked those 18 ft to the front door, you would be greeted by me or whoever was on security, asked whom you wanted to see or the nature of your business. The front door was heavily fortified with steel plates and painted over in black so not to be noticed. Once inside, you would be asked to be seated until the person you wanted came out. Most likely it would be in the Day room which was right by the front door. The Day room was the security outpost and the person on security sat in the Day room and watched the front of the house. From the Day room windows, you could look up and down Peralta St. for a few blocks, as well as seeing down 12th Street. The person on security was armed. I liked to pack a concealed 9mm, which had 15 shots in case of an attack by police or, after 1971, former members who sided with Eldridge after the split. The next office down the hall was the O.D.'s office. All phone calls from the over 40 offices of the BPP came through there as well as all calls for the Central HQ's. A phone was in this office as well as in the Day Room, so if you called the BPP from anywhere in the world I or whoever was on duty would answer the phone, "Central Headquarters of the Black Panther Party, may I help you."

As you rounded the corner from the O.D.'s office, there was a large room with a TV in it. A couch and large bathroom was also there. It appeared to be a plain room, but in that closet was the Central HQ arsenal - a collection of modern weapons to defend Central. Everyone assigned to Central had to know how to operate and clean each one and break them down in the dark. The next room was the big kitchen - the heart of most social and political activity. It was a gathering place and we ate well at Central. Big Rob would usually cook, but sometimes June, Masai or Bobby, when he got out of prison, would cook. We always had a down home meal because most of the comrades were from the south like myself (Alabama). There were two doors in the kitchen, one leading you outside to the backyard and the other to the living quarters of people who lived at Central. Clark Bailey, Michael Torrance, Eugene, James Mott, Maurice Powell (Mojo), Bill Calhoun, a few others, and I lived there.

Central headquarters of the BPP #3

It was our job to keep everything running smoothly. Part of our responsibility was being a duty driver. We had a number of cars that were assigned to Central. The driver's job was to pick people up at the airports, bring people to and from the office, take people to their assignments, pick up equipment, pay bills, go to other offices to pick up people or money, etc. One of the best things about being a duty driver is that you got out of the office. After picking up the people working at the restaurant owned by the Party, the LampPost at about 2:30 am, the car was yours for the night until about 7:00 am. You then had to start picking people up again to take them wherever they were going.

One of the bad things about being a duty driver is that the police would be on your ass. They knew all of our cars. One night I was stopped two times in a period of an hour and half. Driving while Black is nothing new for Panthers. Two police officers particularly hated the Party. They went out of their way to harass you: Big Red and Little Red, both red headed racists. Once they stopped a car, I used to drive (Huey's father's Blue Dodge) looking for me. I had exchanged assignments with Michael Torrance. I went to a jazz club with Big Man and Michael got harassed. Being security for the Party was tough on you; one hardly got enough sleep or rest. Security was 24 hrs a day. The office closed to the public at 9:00 p.m. Even if you were a member, you had to go unless you had direct business to deal with. We locked the big door in the front, put this big bar across the back of the door, and stuck a 4 by 4 board back there.

There was an assignment board back in the living quarters and it had three shifts on it, 9:00pm to 12am, 12am to 3:00am, and 3:00am to 6:00am. If your name was on that list, you couldn't leave the office that night. The assignments were made up every 3 days and sometimes that night, depending on what was happening. The names of those of us who lived there were always on it until the Lumpen (the Party's singing group of Michael, Clark, James, and Bill) had gone on tour. This left a big hole in our personnel staff at Central. This brought about a big contradiction with the Ministry of Information. We were shorthanded and Elaine Brown didn't want her staff to share in security work. Big Rob and Elaine would go at it and Rob won that one when June said that everyone is a member of the same Party and must share in the work.

The office had an intercom system from the front door to the O.D.'s office. We used that at night and had a system that was hooked up from the Day room to the living quarters where the other person on security would be. We had two people on security per shift. The person in the back of the house watched the side yards and we had installed a lighting system in the backyard to provide for better sight.

One of the other benefits of working at Central was meeting other comrades from other offices from throughout America. I met a lot of the regional leaders and other revolutionaries from around the country, all visiting Central. Some of those comrades were Jarvis Redwine from the Motor City; Paul Coates from Baltimore, Zayd Shakur from N.Y., Doug Miranda and Peter Alameda from Boston, Coon and Larry Little from North Carolina, Fred Hampton and Bob Rush, Mumia from Philly, Billy Che Brooks and Doc Satchel from Chicago, and the Dixon Brothers from Seattle to name a few.

Because I answered the phone, a lot I was well known throughout the Party and knew many O.D.'s from around the country. I would get them to do me favors, like sending out some MD 20-20 wine, hats from Chicago, and other things not sold in California at the time. Working at Central had its ups.

When Huey got out of prison in August 1970, Big Rob was assigned to be with him 24 hrs a day. Huey asked Rob whom he trusted and he said Billy X, because by the time Huey got out of jail many people he started the Party with were no longer with the Party and he only trusted a few people. Huey had to go to court everyday and I was already assigned to David Hilliard daily while he went to court for the April 6 shootout in which little Bobby Hutton was killed. David was convicted and I was then assigned to be with Huey everyday he went to court. When he didn't go to court, I was right back in the window in the Day room, so I was on security everyday, all day, packing that 9.

Big Rob, Charles Garry, Ray Masai Hewitt, Clark Bailey, John Seale, myself and sometimes Michael Torrance and Mojo would be with Huey in court every day. We sat through two hung jury trials before the DA stopped trying to get a conviction in the killing of police officer John Frey in 1971. I liked working with Huey. He always treated us good; we ate where he ate, talked about the Party's future, he talked about starting new programs and traveling the world spreading the word about the Party. Everyday newspaper reporters and TV people attended the trials.

One of the ways I could get out of pulling security was when Gene Mc Kinney came by the office. Gene was Huey's friend. He was in the car with Huey the night the John Frey was shot. Gene loved the Party and was made a Panther for life by Huey. Gene would come by often and would borrow film footage about the Party to show in the community. He would always ask me to help operate the projector. Gene was a super cool cat. He drove an older Mercedes Benz. It was the first time I rode in one and I asked him what type of Ford I was in; remember it's 1971. Sometimes he would be showing the films at a bar or club and that was all good for me.

As I mentioned before about the kitchen being the center of activity at Central, well, around 6:00-9:00pm, comrades from all the other local offices would come to Central to hang out and eat. We had to stop this because too many folks would come and eat up all the food before folks who lived there got anything. That was stopped by June. Because Central was the heartbeat of the Party, everybody wanted to be assigned to Central. People all over the country would try to be assigned to Central. June would say, " the people assigned here are the people we want here, they are here for a purpose."

While working at Central, I had many assignments. When we started boycotting stores that wouldn't support the community, I was chosen as line captain for Mayfair, Safeway, and Bill Boyette's. Along with Bobby Bowen, Michael, Torrance, James Mott, Clark Bailey, and Masai, we kept the lines going and full of spirit. Another assignment was to help fortify Central HQ's and that meant digging tunnels for escape and filling sandbags. David Cotton helped build part of the tunnel. He is the guy who started the shootout with the LA Police in 1969 by firing on the police first when our policy was self defense. He was later discovered to be an FBI informer and he was the guy who helped bust Geronimo ji jaga down in Texas. Geronimo stayed in jail for almost 30 years behind Cotton and another FBI informer, Julius Butler in LA. We built another floor underground at Central where we had a target range that we used daily to better our shooting skills.

The surrounding community already supported the Party and would watch out for us. They would call us on the phone to tell us what the police were doing. Right behind Central's backyard was the home of James Johnson's family. He was a former Party member from the East Oakland office and he had to quit to get a job. His girlfriend was having a baby. His family always let us know what was going on, as well as other neighborhood people. About three blocks from the office was Campbell Village, a public housing project, which was a stronghold of Panther support. Many Panthers came from there, as well as other public housing in Oakland.

We held Political Education (PE) classes at Central HQ every Sunday. All comrades were required to attend. At that time, we had many community centers and offices around the Bay area. Sometimes over 200 people would be at PE class, so one had a chance to talk to that special person when PE class was over to make those hook ups.

We had a set of barbells in the back yard. After Huey got out of Prison everybody started to get in better shape. Jimmy Carr (Jackal Dog), George Jackson's friend from prison, was out and he used to push weights in the back yard as well. No one could match him; he was a weight lifting champ from San Quentin and Soledad. He was a large brother about 6'5" with a very solid body, and was known throughout the penal system as a "Bad Brother."

In the backyard, we dug a barbeque pit and used it often to cook for Rallies. Sometimes on Sundays, we would fire up the pit and que-up about 50-100 lbs of meat for the comrades and local neighborhood people who would be flowing in and out of the backyard. Bud, David Hilliard's older brother, was a good cook as well as Mojo, Bobby, Mary Williams, and Marion, June's wife.

Sometimes we held free food giveaways at the West Oakland Center and in front of Central. We would have two or three trucks full of food for the people. We had a number of programs already established: the Breakfast programs, Liberation Schools, Legal Aid, and the George Jackson Clinic. The people loved the Party. They saw us everyday, working to build up the community. We supported the local businesses by buying from them and carrying business to them. The Party spent money in the community.

Every once and a while I was lucky enough to get to go into the field and sell newspapers. Ray Masai Hewitt and I would go downtown to sell papers and walk back to the office, going door to door around Central. He loved it as much as I did.

When other members from other offices came to Central, we would put them in the field to see how well they organized. Many members came to Central with some type of title like Deputy Minister of Information, Deputy Minister of whatever. Once they came to Central, they had no title. The only people in charge with titles were the Central Committee members. Titles meant nothing in the Bay Area. After being at Central for a while and after Huey's trial was over, I was placed in the Lamppost and worked there at night. During the day, I worked with Huey's parents helping them around the house and running errands for them. After that, I was drafted into Bobby Seale's mayoral campaign. After the campaign was over, I worked at the Oakland Community School. Later I was chosen again to work at Central, which had moved to 85th and East 14th Street in East Oakland. This time I was going to be O.D., a shared job with Aaron Dixon. This time I didn't like working at Central, in fact I hated it. The Party had changed so much in the two years since I was at 1048; to me it was like a step backward.

By Billy X Jennings