Historically illuminating photos of women Black Panthers

The Black Panther Party, one of the most influential responses to racism and inequality in American history, advocated armed self-defense to counter police brutality and initiated a program of patrolling the police with guns and law books. (Stephen Shames)

When he was only 20 years old, photographer Stephen Shames began documenting the Black Panther Party. At the time, he was a college student at UC Berkeley. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he was able to gain the trust of people in the Black Panthers, and they allowed him into their lives to make photos.

Because of the trust that Shames established, he was able to make intimate photographs that are really quite different than a lot of media coverage of the Panthers. In his new book, “Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party” (ACC Art Books, 2022), co-authored in close collaboration with Ericka Huggins, Shames takes us away from a dominant view of the Black Panthers by focusing on the women, not the men, who were involved at that time.

Most of us know about the Black Panther Party through movies. Some of us (I am too young to fall in this category) were alive when they were a far more visible entity. Most of the media I have consumed about them centers on portrayals of the men like Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale. Just last year the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah” hit theaters, for example.

Interestingly enough, as the book’s publisher says, some six out of 10 people in the Black Panthers were women. This is what Shames’s new book is all about. It peels back the curtain on their lives and contributions to the movement.

While the women of the Black Panther Party were definitely working alongside their male counterparts agitating and protesting, they also were instrumental, according to the publisher’s description of the book, in, “building communities and enacting social justice, providing food, housing, education, health care, and more.”

This is precisely what Shames’s photos show. You see women providing free food, health care education and more. As the publisher’s description of the book continues:

“Some know the Party’s history as a movement for the social, political, economic and spiritual upliftment of Black and indigenous people of colour — but to this day, few know the story of the backbone of the Party: the women.”

That backbone provided for by the women of the Black Panther party helped establish free breakfasts for schoolchildren. They also helped form the Intercommunal Youth Institute, the People’s Free Medical Clinics, the Free Ambulance Program and the Oakland Community School.

Shames details one of these efforts a full-time liberation day school, dubbed the Children’s House, that would eventually be renamed The Interconnunal Youth Institute:

“Directed by Majeda Smith and a team of BPP members the Children’s House became the way in which sons and daughters of BPP members were educated. Staff and instructors were Black Panther Party members. In 1971 this school moved into a large building in Berkeley and then to the Fruitvale area of Oakland. The Children’s House was eventually renamed the Intercommunal Youth Institute (IYI). Under the leadership of Brenda Bay, the IYI served families of the BPP and a few nearby families nearby. This day school program was sustained for two years.”

The activist Angela Davis sums up Shames’s remarkable book in these words she wrote in a foreword to the book:

“This stunning collection of historical photographs, complimented by contemporary conversations with women members of the Black Panther Party, reminds us that women were literally the heart of this new political approach to Black freedom.”

The Black Panther Party’s enduring legacy is its programs like Free Breakfast for Children, which helped to inspire a national movement of community organizing for economic independence, education, nutrition and health care. Seale believed “no kid should be running around hungry in school,” a simple credo that led FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to call the breakfast program, “the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”


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