Known as the first woman to join the Black Panther Party in 1967, Joan Tarika Lewis, or Tarika Lewis as she is known today, was pivotal in defining the role women would play in growing this revolutionary political organization. A native to Oakland, California, Lewis watched first-hand as her neighborhood began to change. By the time the sixties rolled around, Lewis noticed that Whites in the area were making a concerted effort to disempower the Black economic community in Oakland.
Disturbed by what she was witnessing, Lewis began her activist work as a high school student at Oakland Tech.
During an Oakland church service in 2016, Lewis shared, “We started organizing a Black Student Union then. We started seeing drive-bys and donuts and cursing people out. And these were police.”
The mistreatment was foreign to Lewis and her friends. But she would learn later that there was a story history of the KKK in Oakland, California. The people went from their hoods to earn seats as elected officials and law enforcement who actively worked to destroy Oakland’s thriving Black downtown area and the Black community’s economic base.
There were also incidents of police brutality that left a mark on Lewis’ psyche.
“It was on Sunday morning at Playland at the Beach [San Francisco] and we went swimming and we came back to ride on the roller coasters. And all of a sudden, these two grown men had this kid by the arms and they started hitting him like they were hitting a man. And this kid was around 11-12-years-old. And it wasn’t that they were police, it was the fact that they were two grown men hitting a kid. That was a shock to us. Everything that was happening down south in the student movements, now it was up in your face. That was a shock to us. Everything that was happening down south in the student movements, now it was up in your face.”
Seeing the changes in her neighborhood, Lewis not only started the Black Student Union, she advocated for a Black Studies course and implemented a Black History Club in her school.
She was inspired by the work she saw being done at Merritt College, a public community school in North Oakland at the time.
It was also the place where Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton met one another in 1962 and began laying the foundations of what would eventually become the Black Panther Party. By 1966. they had developed their 10-point program.
Because she spent so much time at Merritt College, with her cousins, Lewis was around at the inception of the Black Panther Party. Though she was an accomplished jazz violinist, she dropped out of high school at 16-years-old, stopped pursuing her career in music and joined the Black Panther Party.
Despite her passion for the organization, Lewis wasn’t immediately welcomed with open arms. In another interview with Take Root Productions, Lewis said, “They made fun of me. They wasn’t gonna let me in. I’m like ‘Y’all got all these guys in here. You don’t have any sisters in here. What do you mean I can’t join?’ I made ‘em. Why not? Plenty of work for everybody. Huey lived around the corner from me and Bobby Seale lived across the street from the old Merritt College. And the college was like a hub. It was the center.”
Lewis not only demanded admission into the party, she wanted to be given a gun at that very moment.
Though her gun-handling, marksmen skills were challenged initially, Lewis would develop a reputation for outperforming the men on the shooting range. Completing the political education classes required for membership, recruiting students from her high school to join, Lewis climbed the ranks quickly. She was appointed local Lieutenant and helped train new recruits. She also taught drill classes. Lewis had other artistic abilities aside from her skills as a musician. She had talents as a visual artist and worked to create artwork for the party’s newspaper under the name Matilaba. The newspaper The Black Panther was sold in several cities across the country and eventually developed an international audience. She’s credited as shifting the image of the party, depicting women with guns in her illustrations. The illustrations were accurate representations considering Black women made up 2/3 of the party.
In 1969, Lewis left the Black Panther Party and began pursuing her music career. Still, she worked in community uplift. She founded the Oakland Black String Ensemble. In the early 1990s, she helped re-establish the Black Panther newspaper.
In 1995, she served as a consultant for the Mario Van Peebles film Panther. In 1998. she helped establish Lil Bobby Hutton Day, after the teenager who was killed by Oakland police for his participation in the Black Panther Party. He was the first Black Panther Party recruit and the first member to be killed by police.
In 2001, Lewis was awarded the Congressional Recognition Award for her work as a performing artist and in acknowledgment of her community work.
Despite her historic role in the party, Lewis shared during an interview celebrating the Panther’s 50th anniversary, had no idea she was the first woman to join. She only realized this when Party co-founder Bobby Seale acknowledged Lewis during a speaking event.
“I never realized that at the time that I was the first female to join. It was at a conference at UC Berkley, years ago and we had a panel with all the men of the party and all the female. And Bobby Seale was there and he pointed me out and said I was the first female to come into the office.”
When asked why she was interested in joining, Lewis said, “We had something very sacred here in Oakland to protect.”
Lewis said that when she thinks about what the Party should be remembered for, she said it’s the community work.
“The legacy of the Panther party is the community work. We did the day to day work. I mean I literally put down my violin, put my career aside. It wasn’t until years later that I went back to school, so all that time to work in the Civil Rights Movement was a great sacrifice.”
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