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A Boston photo exhibit highlights the women of the Black Panther Party


There's an exhibit at a museum in Boston to highlight women of the Black Panther Party through photographs. Women played an important role in the Marxist militant group, but some of them in the photos, taken in the late '60s and '70s, are unnamed. Member station WBUR's reporter Arielle Gray tracked down one of these women, and it's the first time she's seen her photo in person.

ARIELLE GRAY, BYLINE: The halls of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are pretty much empty when I arrive with Gail Jones. We enter an exhibit, but she stops and turns to look at a photo. It's of a young Black woman in a black jacket. She's unnamed on the museum placard, but Jones recognizes her.

GAIL JONES: Oh, my gosh. Look at Frannie smoking a cigarette. Oh, my gosh. This is amazing.

GRAY: We're at the museum to see a photo of Jones, her siblings and friends that photographer Stephen Shames took in Boston over five decades ago. It's now a part of "Comrade Sisters," an exhibit of Shames' photographs taken across the country that highlight women of the Black Panther Party. Shames was the official photographer for the Black Panthers. Jones was just 15 when the photo was taken.

JONES: I'm in total shock. I don't think I own a picture of me at that age.

GRAY: Weeks ago, I visited the MFA to see "Comrade Sisters." One photograph from Boston, titled "Women Of The Black Panther Party," caught my eye. I wondered who the five nameless teenagers in the photo were. I asked curator Karen Haas if she had any information.

KAREN HAAS: So there are a couple of pictures in the exhibition that were taken in Boston of unnamed, unfortunately. If anyone recognizes anyone, I'll be thrilled.

GRAY: I posted the photo on Facebook. Within a day or two, one of the teenagers was identified as Gail Jones. Her son put us in contact. She was unaware the photo was in a museum.

JONES: That's my sister Jacqueline. We call her Jackie. That's my brother, Fred. That is - we called her Frannie, but her name is Francis Phoenix. This is Eva Lorraine Phoenix. But we called her Rainy. And that's me, Gail Hayes Jones.

GRAY: The Black Panther Party was a Black power organization started in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. A few years later, Jacqueline and Frederick Hayes started volunteering for the Boston chapter. Jones joined her siblings after she experienced a tragedy. She found a friend dead of an overdose.

JONES: And so I started running with my brother and sister and Rainey and Frannie. And when they started going to the Black Panther Party, it kind of - something that gave me hope again because that was the time when - oh, I'm getting emotional - but that was the time when you didn't go to counseling. People would say, oh, she's going to be all right, but I wasn't all right. And so this gave me purpose.

GRAY: Jones would hand out party newspapers at a train station. Frederick and Jacqueline would get up before school to help run the free breakfast program for children.

JONES: And that's a lot of what we learned from the Black Panther Party, to serve the people because there were so many people who were in need.

GRAY: Around 65% of the party's membership was women. They had a hand in everything from being in leadership positions to running free health clinics. Women experienced sexism within the party, but Jones says she didn't in the Boston chapter.

JONES: We were always at the forefront, making sure the work was getting done, but we were appreciated. They appreciated every day that we came.

GRAY: The museum has added their names to the label of the photo. Seeing it is a full-circle moment for Jones.

JONES: I'm glad that I can look back and see the work that we did at such a young age.

GRAY: Gail Jones is retired now from her job at the Massachusetts transit system. She says she plans on moving down south, where her sister Jacqueline is. Frederick, their brother, died in 2016. Eva "Rainy" Phoenix, one of the other women photographed, has dementia. Jones visited her and showed her the picture.

JONES: But she said, that's us, Gail. And I said, I know. I was so happy I was able to show her the picture 'cause she recognized everyone. So that was another happy moment.

GRAY: They're no longer just women of the Black Panther Party. The names and story behind the photo are now known.

For NPR News, I'm Arielle Gray in Boston.

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Arielle S Gray