Portraits of the Black Panthers

Photographs from $32 million collection donation on display in McHenry

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Young boys sit around a pile of guns, laughing over a shared joke. A mother worriedly looks at the camera as she holds her child. These photographs show a glimpse of the women and children of the Black Panther Party, different from the perceived male-dominated group.

On Nov. 10, roughly 40 students and community members gathered at McHenry Library to celebrate the opening of “Pictures and Progress: The Black Panther 1966-2016” art collection. The exhibit includes 30 photographs by Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch as well as from the Black Panther comic books.

“My particular interest was challenging the narrative that the Black Panther Party was this hypermasculine, hyperaggressive group organization that was just toting guns around,” said exhibit curator and UC Santa Cruz graduate student crystal am nelson, who asked for their name to remain uncapitalized.

The photographs chosen highlight the role of women and children of the Black Panther Party, a group founded in the 1960s as a way for the black community to patrol their own neighborhoods and protect each other from police brutality. The three curators — Cathy Thomas, crystal am nelson and Kiran Garcha — were each in charge of the different components of the exhibit, from women to children and photographs to comics.

The photographs were part of the $32 million donation of photographs from The Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch Collection. Donated by the Marin Community Foundation, the photographs display the Bay Area and central California during the 1950s, while this exhibit highlights the ones about the Black Panther Party. The photographers specifically requested this collection be displayed at UCSC.

At the opening of the collection, guest speaker, Billy X Jennings, presented his experience joining the Black Panther Party at 17 years old in the height of the civil rights movement.

“This [collection] is just a glimpse of what the party was about, what we were doing,” Jennings said. “Instead of being a footnote in a book, here is a collection for you. Here is a multitude of pictures showing you these guys in action.”

Motivated by the sense of unity around the “Free Huey” protests, Jennings joined the Black Panther Party in 1968. Huey Newton, a UCSC alum, co-founded the Black Panther Party but went to jail for voluntary manslaughter. Community members and Black Panthers protested with the “Free Huey” movement following his arrest. Following Huey’s release, Jennings said, he would work with Huey on a daily basis.

In a speech at the exhibition opening, Jennings recalled the programs set in place by the Black Panther Party that would often be overlooked by the media. The Panthers would buy people groceries, drive people to visit loved ones in jail and provide food for poor young children at schools.

Jennifer McFarland, who worked closely with photographers Jones and Baruch and the Marin Community Foundation, also remembered their intentions behind the photos they took.

“[The photographers] really felt there was more to the Panthers than the thuggish behavior portrayed in most mass media,” McFarland said.

Curators wanted to show the party was more about defending their rights as citizens and exposing the racial discrimination by police. The Black Panthers would protest police violence because the police would target them, Jennings said. He recalled times where Oakland police would park near the Black Panther headquarters and follow their cars. Police officers would wait until they were alone on a street to pull them over and harass them.

“The party has been recording that kind of [police] brutality,” Jennings said. “It came into being because of police brutality.”

The photographs at the exhibit show Black Panther men, women and children attending rallies and holding guns to protect their rights as American citizens. Curator crystal am nelson hopes the photographs will change the rhetoric of how the Black Panther Party is remembered.

“These are human beings,” nelson said, “who are really trying to find a self sustainable way of living and living well.”

The Black Panther exhibition will be open on the third and fourth floors of the McHenry Library until April 1, 2017.