A new tribute to the Black Panther Party launched last month—this one in the form of a virtual reality experience.
Michael Roosevelt and his team of four established OaklandVR in 2020. As their first project, the team recreated the Black Panther Party’s 1968 office in Oakland, located at what was then 4419 Grove Street and is now a multi-family unit on Martin Luther King. Jr. Way. That headquarters was also the site of a shooting in September 1968, when two white Oakland police officers shot through the windows of the empty building, leaving a Huey P. Newton poster riddled with bullets.
Roosevelt said he got the inspiration for the project because he’s a regular customer of It’s All Good Bakery, another former Party headquarters, located several blocks away. The bakery has a gallery wall dedicated to the Black Panther Party, decorated with framed clippings of the group’s newspaper, The Black Panther, a poster of the Party’s 10-point platform, and a photo of co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. A San Francisco native and long-time Oakland resident, Roosevelt was also a student of Angela Davis’s at San Francisco State years ago.
“I started thinking about it a little over two years ago. As I was walking around the city of Oakland where I live, I realized there were all these unremarked spaces in Oakland that people pass by and don’t know their significance,” Roosevelt said. “In a given year, thousands of people go to that bakery but they have no idea the significance beyond what’s on the wall.”
Roosevelt and his team spent months researching the Panthers. He read several books, including The Sky’s the Limit and American Justice on Trial, both by Lise A. Pearlman about Newton’s 1968 trial for manslaughter, Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin about the history of the Party, and Body and Soul by Alondra Nelson, about the Party’s health care platform, among others. Roosevelt worked with an archivist at the Oakland Public Library and also interviewed former Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas, who helped design the group’s newspaper, and former member Ericka Huggins, who led the Oakland Community School in the 1970s. The team browsed vintage furniture sites so they could place historically accurate pieces in the office. Roosevelt also received a $7,000 grant from Oakland’s Neighborhood Voices cultural funding program to support the project.
OaklandVR held a launch party last month at It’s All Good Bakery, where people donned virtual reality headsets and stepped back in time. In the virtual world, which is accessible on the OaklandVR website, political posters adorn the outside of the headquarters and the walls inside. Visitors can click on hotspots, like the headquarters’ old box television, and watch a clip of Seale giving a speech in 1968, or click on the phone on the wall and hear an audio clip of Newton giving an interview from jail the same year.
Next month, OaklandVR will host another event where the team will talk about the technology they used for the project and all the research that went into it. Roosevelt will also be giving away virtual reality headsets for attendees to try out and take home. The event will take place Dec. 3 at RBA Creative on 3718 MacArthur Blvd. from 6 to 8 p.m.
Anyone can view a two-dimensional rendering of the exhibit on the OaklandVR website. But to view it in full-on virtual reality, users will need a VR headset that can be used with a smartphone.
Roosevelt also worked with high school students at Oakland School for the Arts to create Black Panther Party sweatshirts that were on display at last month’s launch party. While they aren’t for sale, Roosevelt is working to have them displayed in local art galleries. Roosevelt approached visual arts teacher Pablo Cristi in the spring to ask if his students would be interested in collaborating on the project.
“The lens through which I teach is really about the impact that visual artists can have on society. For my students, it offered an opportunity to discuss the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party and to make my students aware of some of the physical locations and how it’s still very much part of our history and our physical spaces that we inhabit here in Oakland,” Cristi said. “I was excited to hear that someone wanted to continue to make people aware of the history of the Black Panther Party. Especially because there’s been a lack of recognition from the city, so a lot of these things have to happen at the grassroots level.”
OaklandVR is one of several Oakland groups and individuals commemorating the Black Panther Party in its 55th anniversary this year. Party landmarks that went up in Oakland this year include a mural dedicated to the women of the Black Panther Party and a mini museum, a bronze bust of Newton in West Oakland, and a stretch of Ninth Street renamed for Newton. Roosevelt’s project isn’t even the only virtual Black Panther Party memorial—Oakland archivist Damien McDuffie created Black Terminus AR earlier this year, an app that brings the legacy of the Black Panthers to life through augmented reality.
“All of us are trying to figure out all the different ways to let people know about the importance of the Black Panther Party through education, the arts, and literature,” Roosevelt said. “I feel blessed that I’m able to collaborate with what’s been happening in Oakland.”