How Some Elders are Working to Preserve the Legacy of the Black Panther Party in Oakland
Buffalo Sojourn, who goes by “Buffalo,” is a decades-long community advocate. And as a former member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, commonly known as the Black Panther Party, heâs served as a medical advocate for the past 15 years.
Lately, he’s focused in particular on pushing for co-housing models for seniors.
The Bay Area, where Buffalo has lived for over 40 years, can be a challenging place for seniors to find affordable housing. âGenerally speaking, this is no place for old folks and it’s a hard place for old Panthers,â he said. Buffalo has been unhoused on and off for the past 20 years.
About three years ago, housing lawyer Beilal Chatila moved to West Oakland from Detroit. Chatila says he first met Buffalo while he was hanging out on the porch â they would sit and talk for hours. Eventually, Buffalo told Chatila about the many Black Panther Party-related documents he had in storage.
âWhen I found out that he was without shelter, it came as a shock because I knew at the time that he was helping people who had cancer,â Chatila said.
Chatila recently started a GoFundMe on Buffaloâs behalf, detailing his financial situation.
âBuffalo receives about $700 a month in government aid, but he spends $480 of that per month on a storage unit, where he has preserved thousands of important documents and other memorabilia related to the Black Panther Party,â Chatila wrote on the page.
Buffalo and attorney Beilal Chatila on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 6, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
In Buffalo’s view, one of the most important things he can do is continue to preserve the legacy of the Black Panther Party for the generations to come.
Buffaloâs story brings up a larger issue of ownership, power and historical narrative when it comes to preserving and sharing the legacy of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and the broader Bay Area.Â He’s one of many people eager to ensure the history of the Black Panther Party is accessible and available to the public.
Buffalo & The Black Panther Party
Buffaloâs relationship with the Black Panther Party spanned the course of several years.
âMy higher education came through the Ministry of Information as led by the multimedia master and free speech developer [Leroy] Eldridge Cleaver,â Buffalo said, “Mumia [Abu-Jamal] is my junior brother.â
Buffalo also helped start a Black Panther Party chapter in Portland, Oregon, but eventually returned to San Francisco, where he last served the party.
âI’m an alumnus of Grove Street College,â he said. In the late ’60s and ’70s, the Grove Street College student body included Black Panther Party co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Grove Street eventually turned into Merritt College, and a version of this evolved into what is now North Peralta Community College.
When considering his own documentation of his years in the party, Buffalo spoke to the idea of value â who is valuing what, and the broader need to train the next generation of archivists. “I’m part of a group that we’re training people, persuading people to gain knowledge in library and information science so that we have a group of archivists,â Buffalo said.
Who is telling the story, and how heavily police documents and FBI files are consulted, also forms the lens through which the story of the Black Panther Party is told. âThere’s a number of additions and corrections to history as we know it,â Buffalo said.
Chatila added, âit’s basically the concept of controlling the narrative at least as it relates to the value of these artifacts,” with the idea to pass along the lessons to people today.
While Buffalo has many different documents in his storage unit, he highlighted a few specific pieces: âWe have two or three collage posters about Mumia made in three cities, in three decades, on two coasts,â he said.
Buffalo holds a Mumia Abu-Jamal poster on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 7, 2021, in front of a mural honoring the Women of the Black Panther Party by Oakland-based muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
âI have a number of things that, either Mumia gets out alive, and I give to him, or else he dies and I give to his kinfolks,â Buffalo said. He also noted that since Abu-Jamal’s birthday, earlier this year, thereâs been renewed efforts to call for his freedom. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a journalist and author currently serving a prison sentence for the alleged murder of a police officer in 1982 after a trial that failed to meet international standards, according to rights group Amnesty International. Many national and international celebrities believe he was framed.
Cases like Abu-Jamalâs continue to highlight the importance of having a reliable place to find information about the Black Panther Party.
Buffalo added that they’d “love to release it all and put it on the digital archive.” Then the public would be able to see any discrepancy â specifically with what may have been reported by COINTELPRO, the FBI counterintelligence program that aimed to discredit individuals considered subversive to the U.S. government. COINTELPRO used tactics such as psychological warfare, harassment and had extensive files on many Black Panther Party members.
Making the Black Panther Party’s History More Accessible in The Bay AreaÂ
In the late ’90s, shortly after Dr. Huey P. Newtonâs papers were acquired by Stanford University for an undisclosed amount, Billy X Jennings started It’s About Time, an online archive with a physical space in Sacramento. âI made a promise at the time that we were going to start our own archives, and we did,â he told KQED, by phone.
For Jennings, access is the main issue. He wants people to be able to find the information wherever they are, especially those in Oakland. His own interest in archiving and preserving is in part because the history has been âdistorted,â he said, referring to COINTELPRO.
âI’m still participating in the struggle because in the Black Panther Party it was ‘each one, teach one.’ I have knowledge and experience to pass on,â Jennings said. âIt’s very important to have the correct information to educate people about the legacy of the party â¦ even though the party is not here today, the party has lessons to be taught,â he said.
Fredrika Newton, widow of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, said The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation is working to digitize more archives and create public art to share the party’s history. She also said librarians have told her the Black Panther Party archives at Stanford library are some of the most visited.
Members of the Party, as well as their supporters, often have a “false narrative courtesy of COINTELPRO,” Newton said. âLives were destroyed, relationships were destroyed, when people talk about: did they just end? The party was destroyed.”
Displaying some of this history as public art is a major project of the foundation, to help reclaim the narrative.
“It’s exactly what we did in the Black Panther Party: using art as education,â she said.
Rebalancing History Through Public Art
For some supporters, that also means rebalancing the narrative, including the important role that women played in the party. Jilchristina Vest is the visionary and owner of the house with a mural honoring those women. She said balancing the narrative doesn’t take anything away, but provides a more holistic story.
“What we need to understand, and the reason why I created the mural, was I was in such a deep place of grief and rage last summer,” she said, “and I needed to find balance and I needed to find joy.â
Beilal Chatila, Buffalo and Jilchristina Vest look at Buffalo’s Black Panther memorabilia on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 7, 2021, in front of a mural honoring the Women of the Black Panther Party by Oakland-based muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith. (Beth LaBerge)
She recently launched a new website and tickets are now available for a new pop-up exhibit open for the first time Juneteenth weekend.
âWe’ve gone too long with this negative false narrative of who the Black Panther Party was,â Vest said. âThe Black Panther Party was systematically destroyed in ways in which that is still happening to people today.â
Black Panther photos and posters at at the home of Jilchristina Vest on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 7, 2021. Vest is making the ground floor of her home into a Black Panther Museum. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
She echoes both Jennings and Buffalo in her view that much could be learned from the Party’s legacy today.
âThere was nothing that we were doing then, that cannot be done times ten today,â Vest said. âThey were a group of humanitarians that were trying to save people, feed people, clothe people, house people, educate people, protect people.”
Shortly after unveiling the mural in February,Â Vest called her friend Lisbet Tellefsen, who she describes as âthe cream of the crop archivist for the Black Panther Party.â Tellefsen brought over some banners that had been sitting in storage.
Buffalo tours the future site of a Black Panther Museum to be opened by Jilchristina Vest at her home on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 7, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Vest would like to see a permanent museum in the city of Oakland, a permanent staff, and dedicated researchers preserving the legacy of the Party.
“If we continue to allow somebody else to tell us where we come from, then we’ll never know where we’re going,” she said.
In the meantime, Vest said she’ll see how the pop-up museum goes and potentially keep it up longer.
“It’s our opportunity right now to unpack our own history and look at these archives and these photographs and the essays and speeches and remind ourselves that we’re descendants of,” she said, “in my opinion, one of the greatest groups of humanitarians that ever existed.”
Since Chatila launched the GoFundMe on behalf of Buffalo, they’ve raised nearly $25,000 of their goal of $100,000. As Chatila wrote in a recent update, “For now, he [Buffalo] is staying at Airbnb’s and is looking to buy a wheelchair accessible van for his medical advocacy work.”
Chatila says he’s going to make sure Buffalo has everything he needs and they’d like to be able to put money towards a house that can be used as an example of the collective senior housing Buffalo envisioned.
“Without us as a society providing health care and housing, and taking care of the basic needs of the elders, weâre losing a part of history,â Chatila said.
And since starting the GoFundMe, a company called Ripcord has offered assistance in digitizing the Black Panther Party documents.
As KQED took photos in early May, Buffalo and Vest, who used to be neighbors, chatted about their time in the party.
She joked that perhaps he should sit in one of the rooms of the pop-up â as a part of the museum.
Buffalo, 73, stands on Center and 9th Streets in Oakland on May 7, 2021, in front of a mural honoring the Women of the Black Panther Party by Oakland-based muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
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