'One of the biggest, baddest things we did': Black Panthers' free breakfasts, 50 years on

Ruth Gebreyesus with photos by Sana Javeri Kadri

Last Saturday morning at Lil Bobby Hutton Park in West Oakland, local residents lined up for the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther party’s pioneering free breakfast program. Among the attendees were Emory Douglas, who was the party’s minister of culture; Fredrika Newton, widow of the party’s co-founder Huey Newton; and the Black Panther illustrator Gayle Dickson. Organized by the Oakland-based People’s Kitchen Collective (PKC), the gathering was scored by soul music and warm conversations from communal tables.

Now in its eighth year, the breakfast was one of the PKC’s biggest, serving 650 plates of grits, greens, scrambled eggs and tofu. At the edge of the feast, an altar decorated with flowers and seeds held framed photographs of Black Panther members, activists, and mothers to whom this breakfast owed its legacy.

In January 1969, the Black Panther party’s Free for Children Breakfast Program held its first gathering at St Augustine Episcopal church, less than a mile from Saturday’s festivities. On that first morning, BPP members fed 11 children. By the week’s end, the number had grown to 135.

Billy X Jennings, a former Panther who now serves as the party’s archivist, worked at the original breakfast program at St Augustine’s. “Every office was required to send two people to learn how it ran so you can open one in your area,” he said. Jennings would work at St Augustine’s early in the morning before heading to class at Laney College. Soon after, the breakfast service expanded to 23 locations around Oakland.

Related: The Black Panthers still in prison: after 46 years, will they ever be set free?

The program, originally coordinated by Ruth Beckford, an Afro-Haitian dance teacher, also caught on nationwide, becoming a core initiative of the party’s Survival Programs. By the end of 1969, the program fed 20,000 children across 19 cities. Its unprecedented success was countered by destructive raids of pantries and party headquarters by police. “J Edgar Hoover was scared of the program because it brought prestige to the party,” Jennings recalled. In an internal FBI memo, Hoover wrote: “The [Program] represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for”. Six years later, in 1975, the US government started offering free breakfast in public schools.

Boys eat during a free breakfast in New York, winter 1969. Photograph: Bev Grant/Getty Images

“This is one of the biggest and baddest things we ever did,” Jennings said. “And it’s still functioning across America ... That’s what a vanguard party does. We set examples for people to follow.”

Though the breakfast program is the most famous of the party’s Survival Programs, more than 60 others directly addressed the needs of the black community that were being systematically ignored. Jennings recounts other schemes including a free of charge senior escort program, a monthly bus to prisons to see incarcerated loved ones, and the establishment of 13 medical clinics across the country.

Jocelyn Jackson, a co-founder of PKC, along with Saqib Keval and Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, knows the history of the party’s survival programs by heart. She beams with admiration for the party’s trailblazing work.

“Our society is not going to support our existence. They would actually prefer if we faded away. So in that moment, what are we going to do? The Black Panthers, they said we will provide,” Jackson said. “This was a moment of yes from our past that we want to be in our present. And so we will do that year after year after year. We will be in that park that has so much history of bringing our community together and say every year: we want you to survive.”

Lil Bobby Hutton Park – named after the 17-year-old first recruit to the Black Panther party, who was shot and killed by Oakland police – was the site of many Panther activities. Today, the West Oakland park, also known as De Fremery Park, sits at the edge of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The city’s downtown construction boom creeps closer as it demolishes old buildings and replaces them with high-rises to attract tech prospectors from across the bridge. Local residents point out key Panther landmarks such as their first headquarters in North Oakland and the street where Hutton was shot dead. But there are no statues or commemorative plaques.

“I teach Panther history and my students are always struck when I take them through Oakland, by how alive it is for some and invisible for others,” Bhaumik said. “So how is it that we can, using the tools that we have, present those histories, acknowledge on whose shoulders we stand and really present this legacy?”

For PKC, food is a space in which to explore everything from the family unit to global traditions. Saturday’s breakfast included cups of rose-hip tea from Mak-’amham, a food and culture survival project from the chefs Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino celebrating the history of the East Bay’s indigenous Ohlone tribes. Bhaumik said she discovered the Mak-’amham project after researching the land in West Oakland.

“I couldn’t figure out what was growing there, what the [original] food sources were. And when I met [Medina], he said: you’re asking me in the past tense. You need to be asking that question in the present tense.” Bhaumik and PKC shared that lesson with breakfast attendees. “You cannot deny the present existence of indigenous peoples if you have the first flavors of the land in your body.”