Our education regarding historical Black figures is limited. And the Black people we do learn about have “sanitized” by a Eurocentric, White supremacist-leaning educational system. For many of us, that meant that there was no room to even discuss the Black Panther Party. With the emphasis on self-defense and Black Empowerment, White history teachers, decades later, didn’t even know to perceive the movement as something other than a threat to their identity and power.
We didn’t learn much—if anything at all. And given the sexism represented in history, there was no chance we heard of the Black women present in the Black Panther Party. In Black households, we might have stumbled across an image of a fro-ed out Angela Davis. But with 2/3 of the Party members being women, there are thousands of names we’ll never know.
One of the names that was new to me was Ericka Huggins.
For their 50th anniversary, the Oakland Museum spoke with several former Panthers about their involvement in the organization. Huggins said that she joined the Black Panther Party with an impulsive move.
“In 1967, I was at Lincoln University, a historical Black university [in Oxford, Pennsylvania]. And someone gave me a copy of Ramparts magazine. And as I opened the magazine to look at the article, there was a picture of Huey Newton, strapped to a hospital gurney with a bullet wound. And I decided to leave and drive across the country to become part of the Huey P. Newton Defense Committee but also to join the Black Panther Party. Because I read that it was an organization created not just to end police brutality but the upliftment, as the term was then, poor and oppressed people in the world. And that was the kind of organization I wanted to be a part of.”
Ericka was 18 at the time but she had already met and married her husband, Vietnam Navy veteran John Huggins, who she met at Lincoln University.
Huggins was on board with the mission of the Black Panther Party and also joined the party. The couple quickly climbed the ranks in the party. But two years after they moved to California, John Huggins was killed on January 17, 1969, three weeks after he and Ericka welcomed their first child, a daughter the two named Mai Huggins.
“Never had I experienced so much death, month after month after month, until I joined the Black Panther Party because the local police and all of the cities where there were party chapters and the government were bent on wiping us out. When you skirt that close to losing your life. You don’t take any moment for granted. The highest example of that was the day that I got the phone call that John Huggins, my husband, and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, my dearest friend, had been killed on the UCLA campus in daylight. Then three months later, I was arrested for conspiring to commit murder. A murder I did not commit. And I spent two years incarcerated without my baby daughter. So John was killed. I was arrested when my daughter was three months old— and the charges against Bobby and I and others—my daughter was two and a half. So that changed my life, her life. Everything was changed.”
After John was killed, Huggins returned to his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut to be with his family. She opened a chapter of the party there with Elaine Brown and Kathleen Cleaver.
In 1969, members of the Black Panther Party tortured and murder Alex Racily, a man they suspected of being an informant. As a result, Huggins and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale were arrested.
Huggins seen two years in jail awaiting trial. While imprisoned, Huggins, who served portions of her sentence in solitary confinement, started yoga and meditation as a way to survive her imprisonment.
In a conversation with the Oakland Museum, Huggins said that a student once asked her how she handled the sadness and sorrow of losing her husband, being separated from her daughter and living in jail for a crime she didn’t commit. She told him, “At one point, my heart felt like shattered glass. I asked my lawyer, Charlie Garry—who did a headstand every morning before he entered the courtroom—to give me a book on Hatha Yoga and meditation. I told the fifth-grader that I needed to sit still, to quiet my mind. Doing this, I was able to feel my heart becoming whole again.”
When Huggins was released from prison in 1971, she went right back to work for the party. She became a writer and editor for the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service.
In the early 70’s the development of the Oakland Community School became the party’s central focus as membership declined with Newton in exile. Elaine Brown, was appointed leader of the party and devoted much of her energy in building the Oakland Community School. Brown appointed Huggins as the director of the school that she said turned “children from poor and marginalized communities who so often fall thought the cracks in public school, into eager scholars.”
Many of the teachers were Black, a few White, Latinos and Asians.
In speaking about the innovative methods of educating these children, Huggins told East Bay Times,
“During the science classes, we lifted up the asphalt in the back lot and there were areas where we planned things—veggies and herbs I think, so that the children could watch things grow. Because in their communities everything was in a market. Some things were in a market—in communities of color, especially communities where there was abject poverty. I mean, parts of East Oakland, which is where we were located, were like living in another country. So they got to grow things that then went into the school meals. So they got to understand service.”
Tuition for the school was mostly free, funded by radiothons and fundraisers to cover costs. They also received government funding. As a result of the support, children were fed three meals a day.
Teresa Williams, a student at the school spoke about going on a field trip to the Oakland airport. The children were taken onto the plane, told to fasten their seatbelt and visualize themselves visiting a place they’d like to visit and then promise themselves that they would eventually go.
Williams explained, “I said I would go to Antarctica and to Ghana to see the Door of No Return and I did. They taught us to see yourself in the future doing what you want to do and just know that the future hasn’t caught up with you yet.”
Prominent figures like Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and James Baldwin all visited the school. Classrooms had ten students or less and were based on ability rather than age. They were taught poetry, writing, math, science, Spanish, history, current events, martial arts, meditation and yoga.
In 1977, the school was recognized for its highly effective service in educating children in the community of Oakland.
As the party became disjointed, with allegations of misappropriated school funds, the addiction of party leaders and more, the school also suffered.
Huggins told The East Bay Times, “Toward the end, paranoia and addiction and all these things that were the problem with people outside the school impacted everything. In that last year, it was obvious even though I hung in there until the last minute, that I needed to go.”
Still, the students who attended the school spoke highly of the impact it had on their lives. The school’s curriculum became a model for what we now know as charter schools.
Huggins went on to serve on the Alameda County Board of Education. In the 90’s, she volunteered with the Shanti Project to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. She developed a program for women and children living with the disease. She also supported gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning youth and adults.
In the early 2000s, Huggins became a professor of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University and California State University.
From 2008-2015, she was the professor of Sociology and African American Studies Peralta Community College District.
In 2017. speaking about the ways in which the Black Panther Party changed her, Huggins said:
“Being a part of the Black Panther Party changed my life in every way. My heart opened to new ways of being. I was very shy and I realized for instance that I had to step forward and speak because so many people, after a point, were being jailed and killed. Jailed and killed. That it was important for all of us to take responsibility for uplifting the communities we were serving. The Black Panther Party changed my understanding of generosity and compassion because we gave all of the time. We worked 19-hour days. And by the way, the median age of a Black Panther Party member was 18-19 -years old. So my mind was expanding, my heart was open and I was using my physical body, pushing it to its limit every day.”
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