close
close
Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

The indelible impact of the Baltimore Black Panthers

By meerna Jun12,2024

Kristian Whitehead’s interest in the Black Panther Party dates back to a tenth-grade history class and a teacher as progressive as his curriculum. She is currently a rising history major at Morgan State University and recently completed her role as co-curator “Revolution in Our Lifetime”: The Black Panther Party and Political Organizations in Baltimore, 1968–1973issued at The Peale – An unexpected but rewarding experience for Whitehead, a first-generation college student.

In extended view until July 7 Revolution in our lives focuses on the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. This is the first comprehensive analysis of the movement’s short-lived but revolutionary presence in the city.

In extended view until July 7 Revolution in our lives focuses on the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. This is the first comprehensive analysis of the movement’s short-lived but revolutionary presence in the city.

The exhibit not only explores the Baltimore Panthers’ ideological roots and community-oriented programs, but also contextualizes the chapter’s relationships with neighboring political organizations and social justice movements across the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Woven into the legacy of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore is the Baltimore Police Department’s efforts to undermine and dismantle it.

Installation view “Revolution in Our Lifetime”: The Black Panther Party and Political Organizations in Baltimore, 1968–1973. Currently on view at The Peale. Photo courtesy of Will Kirk, Johns Hopkins University.

Whitehead organized this free exhibition with Kai Clemons, a recent graduate of Morgan’s African American Studies master’s program, as well as recent graduate Emma Petite and rising senior Gerardo Fontes, both of Johns Hopkins University.

The exhibition features rare artifacts, documents, photographs and copies of the Black Panther Party newspaper from the JHU Sheridan Libraries, the University of Baltimore Special Collections and Archives, and the Baltimore County Special Collections at the University of Maryland, among others.

Under the guidance of Hopkins staff and faculty Heather Furnas, Victoria Harms, and Stuart Schrader, students researched and developed their own sections. These sections include young and incarcerated activists, as well as individual actors such as Reverend Chester Wickwire of JHU and John Clark, a local Black Panther leader who adapted Maoism into his social organizations.

Schrader says that although full use is now made of the Moses Williams Center in Peale, the exhibition was not initially planned. Instead, when JHU’s Sheridan Libraries acquired the party’s newspaper archive in 2022, in which he and Furnas played key roles, their primary goal was to promote the nearly complete collection for public use.

photos of books presented at an art exhibition.
Installation view “Revolution in Our Lifetime”: The Black Panther Party and Political Organizations in Baltimore, 1968–1973. Currently on view at The Peale. Photo courtesy of Will Kirk, Johns Hopkins University.

Harms’ experience as a senior lecturer in Hopkins’ history department made her an inevitable collaborator. Since 2019, Harms’ undergraduate course on the global revolutions of 1968 has invited local luminaries to share their experiences — including, in particular, late Black Panther leader Eddie Conway, who spent nearly 44 years in prison before his release in 2014 as political prisoner.

Following Conway’s death in February 2023, the newspaper collection became an essential resource for uniting academic and cultural institutions in the spirit of the organizer’s lifelong work.

“(Schrader and Harms) had a vision of what the project was going to be; We just fit in perfectly,” says Fontes about what he and his peers got involved in. Revolution in our lives. His relationship with Harms through a library scholarship and focused research on Panthers ally Reverend Wickwire introduced him to the project.

Petite had taken classes with Schrader and Harms, but had not yet researched the Black Panther Party in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Whitehead and Clemons had a strong interest in the Panthers and joined forces through a series of independent, chance connections. Last April, Clemons met with her future advisors at an event hosted by The Real News Network, where Conway worked before his death. Last summer, the couple added to the team of students and curators through fellowships with Inheritance Baltimore, a reparations program at Hopkins that aims to preserve local Black history and curate arts-based community engagement.

Installation view “Revolution in Our Lifetime”: The Black Panther Party and Political Organizations in Baltimore, 1968–1973. Currently on view at The Peale. Photo courtesy of Will Kirk, Johns Hopkins University.

“The pieces fell into place. It would be impossible to plan the exhibition this way,” says Schrader. “It was really random circumstances.”

Each student who was familiar with the project was asked to draw a coherent narrative based on their research interests. “How can we talk to each other? How do we convey a (larger) message that leaves viewers with fragments of what we expect from our sections?” reflects Clemons on the team’s process.

The result: each section thoughtfully illuminates stories through labels and essay-like media that fill the gallery space. Guests can also walk counterclockwise around the room for a chronological overview of the Baltimore chapter.

All students were quick to share the artifacts they liked best. For Clemons, whose first installment examines the role of Baltimore youth, it is an image from the I. Henry Photo Project of children protesting for the release of Conway and his comrades James Powell and Irving Young. “The Panthers took advantage of the youth of the kids to make this movement what it was,” he says.

All students were quick to share the artifacts they liked best. For Clemons, whose first installment examines the role of Baltimore youth, it is an image from the I. Henry Photo Project of children protesting for the release of Conway and his comrades James Powell and Irving Young. “The Panthers took advantage of the youth of the kids to make this movement what it was,” he says.

Fontes appreciated the humanity he saw in his subject, the Reverend Wickwire,’s notes from meetings for the Baltimore Committee for Political Liberty, a citywide partnership that included prominent religious and neighborhood organizations.

Petite pointed to cartoons depicting the resistance and many front pages of the party newspaper that seamlessly referenced the team’s research, including her research on prison uprisings in Baltimore and Maryland.

Focusing on internationalism, Whitehead chose a map showing the intellectual influence of the Baltimore branch. Produced by SinoMaps Press, then known as China Cartographic Publishing House, this artifact depicts red torches marking protests across America in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bubble also looms over Baltimore, one of only six cities where speech is used AND torch graphic. China’s Mao Zedong praised the unit’s resistance to the city’s police and National Guard and expressed confidence in their continued fight.

“I thought it was a great example of mutual solidarity,” Whitehead says. “African Americans not only looked to China for inspiration, but also to black activists and supported them.”

According to Harms, the Baltimore case study not only directly highlights current structural challenges, but also illuminates broader power dynamics and grassroots movements that reflect struggles around the world and transcend time. “Rarely are domestic stories truly domestic,” Harms says. “They often have a global dimension that really comes out in the history of the Baltimore Panthers.”

She and Schrader expressed pride in the student curators for their diligent research, as well as gratitude to everyone who has been involved with the exhibition since its April 12 opening.

But both advisors and students emphasize that untold untold stories about the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party – and ultimately the world – lie hidden in local archives, ready to be further unearthed and amplified.

Revolution in our lives on view at The Peale, 225 Holliday Street, until July 7. Community members can access Black Panther materials on-demand at Sheridan JHU Libraries.

By meerna

Related Post