Woodson branch archival specialist Tracy Drake said her own mother lived during the height of the Black Panther Party in Chicago and didn’t know much about their community service programs.
“A friend told her a negative story about the Black Panthers so that’s what she associated with the Black Panther Party.” After that, Drake said she and her 10-year-old daughter taught Drake’s mother more about those service programs. But that lack of history about the Black Panthers is not uncommon, according to Drake.
Drake is an archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection located at Chicago Public Library’s Woodson Regional Library in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood. It’s recognized as the largest African-American history and literature collection in the Midwest. Drake curated the exhibit “All Power to the People: Celebrating the Legacy of the Illinois Black Panther Party” at the branch.
The exhibit opens Feb. 16 at Woodson with the program “Activism & Outreach: 50 Years of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party.” Former Panther members, including U.S Congressman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., are scheduled to speak at the opening reception.
Historian Drake said she hopes to illuminate services the Black Panthers provided the community beyond well-known programs like its free breakfasts for kids. The curator pointed to a poster that advertised free testing for sickle cell anemia and the Food Cooperative Program to provide food for families in need.
One of Drake’s favorite quotes from well-known Panther Fred Hampton reads: “First you have free breakfast, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides and soon you have freedom.” Drake defined that message as a template for how to fight for equity, “Once you have those basic needs fulfilled, then you can focus on the other social issues, like the racial injustice aspects.”
Another section in the exhibit juxtaposed how black and white media outlets portrayed the party. “Find Panthers Feed Only a Few Children” a Chicago Tribune headline from 1969 read. Drake said that headline was incorrect.
“At the height of the organization, they’re feeding thousands of children a week,” she said.
Drake pointed out that headlines like this fed into misconceptions. The Tribune was displayed next to political cartoons by Chester Commodore from the Chicago Defender newspaper. Those depicted mistreatment by police against the Black Panther Party, with a man bending over, luring members from the headquarters by saying, “Here kitty kitty:” The back of his pants are labeled “racist”. The illustration also includes a man wearing a KKK robe and holding a shotgun.
Drake said in addition to Rush, former party member Yvonne King is scheduled to speak Feb. 16.
“It’s great to have these documents, but it’s even greater to hear those stories from people who lived it, people who were there,” the exhibit’s curator said with excitement.
All Power to the People: Celebrating the Legacy of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party runs through December 31 at Woodson Regional Library.
Carrie Shepherd is a WBEZ reporter who covers arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.