By Iris Garcia, Program Officer | June 18, 2021
Akonadi Foundation’s So Love Can Win Fund provides critical support for Oakland’s organizers, artists, storytellers, culture bearers, and healers as they imagine and ignite a radical, collective vision of freedom and racial justice. In honor of Juneteenth, a day of Black liberation that marks the emancipation from slavery, we bring you this So Love Can Win grant partner spotlight written by Akonadi Foundation Program Officer, Iris Garcia featuring Jilchristina Vest, the curator of the West Oakland Mural Project.
Jilchristina Vest bought her home over 20 years ago in the heart of West Oakland to be surrounded by the revolutionary legacy of the Black Panther Party. Beginning in June 2020, Vest assembled a team to install a 2,000-square-foot mural on the exterior walls of her house to honor these Oakland humanitarians. Located on the corner of Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way, the mural is the first and only public monument recognizing the Women of the Black Panther Party.
I was honored to meet Jilchristina, see the mural, and hear more about the inspiration behind the project. (Photo: Jilchristina Vest on the left, Iris Garcia on the right)
Q. What is the vision of the West Oakland Mural Project and the inspiration behind the mural?
A. The vision of the West Oakland Mural Project is to create art that reflects, heals, and empowers the community around it. I partnered with Ericka Huggins, a Black Panther Party Leader and member and long-time Oaklander, as a mentor for the project. The muralist, Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, led the team of artists and is also the artistic director for the Bay Area Mural Program (BAMP); her art graces walls all over Oakland. We installed the 2000 sq. ft. mural on the side of my house in honor of the #SayHerName movement and in response to the continued invisibility of Black women and constant violence and systematic oppression targeted toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. The mural came out of a desperate need for balance. In the face of so much grief and pain, I wanted to offer something that would bring myself and my community joy and pride. The Women of The Black Panther Party Mural honors the legacy of the Black Panther Party, the women who made up 70% of its members, and the more than 60 Community Survival Programs they created to better the lives of Black,poor and oppressed people everywhere.
Q. Describe the mural, who is featured, and what message do you want to send through these images?
A. Standing 30 feet tall, the mural is based on archival photographs taken by Stephen Shames in the 1960s, so these are real women. Initially, they were unidentified, and since the mural’s unveiling, three of the four women have been recognized. Now we know they are Delores Henderson, Angie Johnson, and Mary Williams holding her daughter Lauryn. The base color is Panther blue, which helps the women stand out and lets the mural melt into the sky and become almost endless. The rich chocolate brown trim is in honor of the chocolate brown-skinned women. On the right, the background includes the names of women who were in The Party, which had over 40 chapters in cities all across America. We have nearly 300 names now and we’ll keep adding them. Visiting the mural, we hope you are inspired to say their names out loud, thank them, and honor them.
This mural encourages community healing through honoring the history of Black women and paying homage to Oakland’s revolutionary and humanitarian roots. Healing comes from truth, and this mural is balancing the narrative of the Black Panther Party. It is a place where people, specifically young Black women and girls, can stand and see an empowering reflection of themselves. Through these murals, through art and culture, the true history of our community can be seen, acknowledged, and proven worthy of honor. When you are here, you can’t help but to look up to Black women.
Q. How has this project expanded from a mural to become a community center?
A. I’ve rented out the first floor flat for the last 20 years, and when the tenants moved out at the end of 2020 and the mural began at the start of 2021, it became clear that the whole house was destined for something bigger. In March, we began transforming the bottom floor of the house into a community space featuring a mini Black Panther Party Museum. With the continued help and support of Ericka Huggins and the skill and expertise of her partner, Black Panther Party archivist and curator Lisbet Tellefsen, we launched the museum.
In addition to the museum, the dream is to use the space as a community center with things like yoga, dance, art and meditation for kids, restorative justice conversations with community partners like Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), and more. We will also continue to honor the legacy of the Panther’s Community Survival Programs by offering the People’s Free Food Program throughout the year.
Through the museum and mural, viewers are introduced to the fierce women of the Black Panther Party, the real story of who the Black Panthers were, and details on the over 60 Community Survival Programs they created – like free schools, free clinics, free food and free breakfast for children. This project celebrates Oakland’s history, the proud birthplace of these humanitarians. This project does not depict Black grief; it evokes Black Joy. It does not depict the oppressed; it celebrates our freedom fighters. It does not memorialize what has been done to us; it celebrates what we can do for ourselves.
The Mural, Mini Museum, and Community Center are unapologetically in honor of and for Black women. Because, like all things, anything that benefits and uplifts Black women automatically uplifts the entire community.