Educate to Liberate: Black Panther Liberation Schools

Connie H. Choi

Black Panther children in a classroom
at the Intercommunal Youth Institute,
the Black Panther school, in Oakland
in 1971.
Photo: Stephen Shames/Polaris 

In 1968, just two years after the Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded in Oakland, California, the Party’s headquarters mandated that all chapters inaugurate “serve the people” programs. Community service had become a central component of the BPP’s mission, and the group committed itself to organizing nearly two dozen social and educational programs to benefit Black communities across the nation, from free medical clinics to voter registration drives. In fact, by 1970, a People’s Free Medical Clinic was a requirement in every chapter. 1

The commitment to these programs came from the BPP’s recognition that the legislative strides made in the 1960s, namely the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, did not break down the barriers to equality still faced by Black communities. The programs “were instituted as parallel alternatives to the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty scheme …. With its programs to serve the people, the Party sought to remedy the practical and ideological deficits of civil rights ‘progress’ as it was embodied in the War on Poverty.”2 By working directly in and for local communities, the BPP ensured that their programs served those who needed the services they provided.

As part of their commitment to Black communities, the BPP began liberation schools led by volunteers after school in storefronts, churches, and homes in 1969.3 Following these early schools and recognizing the failure of public schools to adequately prepare Black youth for the life ahead of them, the BPP formed the Intercommunal Youth Institute (later renamed the Oakland Community School) in January 1971, to begin breaking this “seemingly endless cycle of oppression.”4

From 1967 to 1973, photojournalist Stephen Shames had unprecedented access to the BPP, documenting the organization, the Institute, and its individual members. Scholar bell hooks suggests that before racial integra­tion, African Americans struggled to create “a counter-hegemonic world of images that would stand as visual resistance, challenging racist images.”5 Given the media attention on the BPP’s militant appearance, this counter-archive of images produced by supporters of the BPP, such as Shames, ensured that the true com­mitments of the organization would be documented and preserved.

In a 1971 photograph, Shames captured twelve Panther children of various ages, wearing Black berets and collared shirts and standing erect, with hands by their sides, at the Institute. Posters of BPP cofounders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, as well as various graphic work depicting armed Black men and mothers with children, created by the BPP’s Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, adorn the walls.

The posters and illustrations serve as visual remind­ers of the BPP leaders and the goals of the organization, while also functioning as reaffirmations of Panther children’s roles. Like Newton, in the poster on the window shade, the children do not acknowledge the camera. Instead, they stand at atten­tion, staring straight ahead. Their countenance sug­gests that the children are being taught to carry on the mission of the BPP. They represent the future—of the organization and of society. However, the children’s unsmiling gazes hint at the complex role they inhabit. They are no longer solely children, but militant support­ers of the BPP.


Photo: Stephen Shames/Polaris

They represent the future—of the organization and of society.

By 1972, the earlier rigidity at the Institute had disap­peared, perhaps reflecting the growth of the school as it expanded to include neighborhood children. Shames’s photographs show this shift, with images of students and teachers in everyday clothing instead of the stan­dard Panther uniform. The focus on education and the mission of the Party are still apparent in these images but are now supplemented with ideas of fun and play.

In one 1972 photograph, Brenda Bay, then director of the Institute, sits with four children (right). The image reads like a tableau, with two boys seated at desks on the left and Bay seated on a built-in bench with two girls standing close beside her. Although the image appears staged, the bond between teacher and students is appar­ent. The relaxed positions suggest a familiarity and ease that is not present in the earlier group photograph. Another 1972 photograph shows two female students working together at a table (above). The tightly cropped image emphasizes the engagement and concentration on the girls’ faces. In both photographs, the children appear to be more at ease, their expressions relaxed instead of stiff.

The prominence of the BPP uniform in the 1971 photograph recalls the emphasis that organizations such as the American Missionary Association placed on behavior, dress, and comportment for African-American students. This late-nineteenth-century idea of molding and shaping students to fit an ideal—a value influenced by evangelical Protestantism at the time—is also seen in the BPP’s overall regimented structure, most clearly represented in the uniform and the image it projected to the world. The later images of the Institute, however, suggest the influence of progressive education and experiential learning.

The success of experiential learning models, seen through the efforts of nontraditional schools in the Bay Area, impacted the pedagogical model utilized by the Institute. Administrators built a curriculum that com­bined traditional subjects with activities that put stu­dents in direct contact with the mission of the BPP and the systems of racial and class inequities that led to the civil rights and Black Power struggles.6 For example, stu­dents as young as four learned writing skills by penning letters to incarcerated BPP members and other political prisoners. The Institute’s goal was to impart children with all of the skills and knowledge, both academic and social, they would need to overcome societal disparities.

Ericka Huggins, director of the Institute in 1974, later explained, “I think that the school’s principles came from the socialist principles we tried to live in the Black Panther Party. One of them being critical thinking—that children should learn not what to think but how to think … the school was an expression of the collective wisdom of the people who envisioned it. And it was … a living thing [that] changed every year.”7 In providing students with a traditional education and the skills needed to be politically active and aware, the Institute sought to “expose the children to a great deal of information and direct experience with the world so they can receive a more realistic view of the world,”8 thus fulfilling the school’s mission to “educate to liberate."9

— Connie H. Choi

1. See Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

2. Ibid., 55.

3. Ericka Huggins, “School,” in Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale, Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers (New York: Abrams, 2016), 93.

4. The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, ed. David Hilliard (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 5.

5. bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life,” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 389.

6. See Ericka Huggins and Angela LeBlanc-Ernest, “Revolutionary Women, Revolutionary Education: The Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School,” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 161–84; and Tracye Matthews, “‘No One Ever Asks, What a Man’s Role in the Revolution Is’: Gender and the Politics of the Black Panther Party, 1966–1971,” in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, ed. Charles E. Jones (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 257–304.

7. Quoted in Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 178.

8. Brenda Bay, quoted in Huggins and Le- Blanc-Ernest, 169.

9. Huggins and LeBlanc-Ernest, 169.