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A mural dedicated to the women of the Black Panther Party is coming to West Oakland this spring.
Inspired by a desire to bring greater visibility to Black women, Jilchristina Vest decided last year that she wanted to honor the women who at one point comprised two-thirds of the political organization born in Oakland. The mural will be painted on the back and side panels of Vest’s home, one block away from where a Huey Newton bust will be unveiled later this year, and on the street that will soon be named for the deceased Black Panther Party co-founder.
“We’re going to create a Black Panther trifecta,” Vest said. “Let’s put West Oakland on the map for something joyful and celebratory.”
Vest, who has owned her home on the corner of Center and Ninth streets since 2000, said she first came up with the idea for the mural last year, after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests in May and June. She was struck by the lack of similar response to the death of Breonna Taylor, who had been killed two months earlier in Louisville, Kentucky, during a police raid.
While walking throughout Oakland last summer, she noticed the dozens of murals going up to commemorate Floyd, Taylor, and others who had been killed by police. But because the murals were painted on plywood boards that business owners were using to protect their stores, she knew they wouldn’t last for very long. Vest decided then to put a mural on the side of her own home, so it would never come down.
“I decided I’m going to make it a mural that celebrates what we can do for ourselves, rather than memorializing the things that are done to us,” Vest said. “I’m not going to put a mural up of all the women who have been murdered by state violence. We’re reminded of that constantly.”
When Vest attended San Francisco State University in the 1980s, she had Angela Davis as a professor. Several years later, a job brought her to West Oakland and she fell in love, she said. As a longtime admirer of the Black Panther Party, Vest said she wanted to bring more attention to women’s contributions.
She reached out to Ericka Huggins, a former party member, and Fredrika Newton, the widow of Huey Newton, for their support and help. She also enlisted a team of women to create the mural and to film a documentary about it. On Wednesday, muralist Rachel Wolfe will begin painting the outer wall of the home facing Center Street, taking inspiration from the work of Stephen Shames, who photographed the Black Panthers and their events.
Once finished, the art will center three Black women depicting voting rights, self-defense, and health care, three of the party’s tenets. The other panels will list the names of more than 250 women who were in the Black Panther Party. The back wall of Vest’s home facing Chester Street will have a quote from Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody in Texas in 2015. Vest estimates it’ll take up to a month to finish the mural once Wolfe begins it on Wednesday.
Vest and her team have a weekend-long celebration planned leading up to the reveal. On Saturday, Feb. 13, the “Women of the Black Panther Party” mural project will host a food drive with the East Oakland Collective from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at its distribution hub at 7800 MacArthur Blvd. On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 14, Vest will stream a 45-minute presentation on her YouTube channel that includes interviews with Huggins, Shames, and others. Following that program, viewers can watch a livestream of the mural being painted in West Oakland, as families pick up the bags of groceries from the food drive. The Feb. 14 date is doubly significant for Vest, because it marks the date she closed on the home 21 years ago.
The mural is one of several efforts underway to memorialize the Black Panther Party’s presence in West Oakland. On Newton’s birthday, Feb. 17, a stretch of Ninth Street between Center and Chester streets will be renamed “Dr. Huey P. Newton Way,” near the spot where Newton was killed in 1989. Later this year, a bust of Newton will be put up at Ninth Street and Mandela Parkway.
The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and focused on self-defense, political power, and liberation for Black Americans. The group founded several community programs, including free breakfast programs and a community school.