As a high school senior fascinated by the history of black activism, Amani Hill ’20 closely followed the racially charged protests that swept Yale’s campus last year.
“It was a big part of the reason I wanted to come,” Hill said. “A lot of the discrimination that was coming to light on campus I’m sure existed on other campuses. The fact that it was being addressed and talked about was something that I wanted to be a part of.”
A strong believer in social justice, Hill was one of five undergraduates and two professional students who spent fall break in Oakland, California, learning about the past and present of black activism at a four-day commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist group.
The anniversary celebrations took place at the Oakland Museum of California, where a new exhibition on the Black Panthers went up earlier this month. The Yale group, composed of students selected by the Afro-American Cultural Center, toured the exhibition with an Oakland Museum curator and attended panel discussions with former members of the Panthers. Shane Lloyd, the new assistant director of the AACC, chaperoned the trip along with Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Pamela George.
Hill — an avid student of Panther history who made a documentary film about the group during her sophomore year of high school — said the anniversary event was as much about the future of black activism as about the history of civil rights.
“I thought I was going to learn about history, but it was very helpful in learning to apply history to current situations,” Hill said. “I took away a lot from the spirit of the Panthers. They were deeply committed to social justice issues in a way that I haven’t seen before. They really dedicated their lives.”
Lloyd, who worked at Brown’s Center for Students of Color before starting at Yale this semester, said the purpose of the trip was partly to offer students a historical model for combating present-day injustices like the shootings of young black men.
“How do we stop the deaths, stop the violence, keep people safe?” Lloyd said. “We consider how these actions have been countered in the past. And the Black Panther Party provides a case study of sorts for people to think about the various ways they can counter injustice.”
The history of the Black Panther Party is deeply intertwined with the city of New Haven. In May 1969 three Black Panthers murdered another member who they mistakenly believed was a FBI informant in New Haven. After two of the killers confessed, the FBI attempted to implicate the Panthers’ leadership in the murder.
On May 1, 1970, with Panther founder Bobby Seale and local leader Ericka Huggins on trial, tens of thousands of demonstrators — some of them Yalies — rallied on the New Haven Green in support of the Panthers. Then-University President Kingman Brewster was supportive of the protesters, arguing Seale and Huggins were unlikely to get a fair trial “anywhere in the United States.” The charges against the two Panthers were eventually dismissed.
Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes DIV ’18 — one of two Divinity School students who went on the Oakland trip — said she learned about the history of the New Haven trial in a documentary about the Black Panthers she watched last fall.
“That was a pretty cool history to uncover while being a student here,” said Wilkes, who has volunteered for the Black Lives Matter movement in New York and Connecticut.
Wilkes added that on the trip she was especially struck by the resilience of the Panthers, many of whom served prison sentences or were placed under surveillance by the federal government. She described the Panthers who met with the Yale group as role models for activists on campus and across the country.
“They were really, really big on not just empowering strong leaders, but empowering communities and individuals, a very good model for 2016,” Wilkes said. “They’re very resilient, they’re not bitter and that was a really good lesson for doing work that can drain you.”
Azaria King ’20, another undergraduate attendee, said her grandfather told her stories about the Black Panthers while she was growing up. She visited Oakland expecting to learn more about the history of the group and came back with a renewed commitment to combatting present-day injustices.
“One of the [Black Panthers] said, ‘Labels don’t mean anything unless you’re willing to die for it,’” King recalled. “This entire trip had me questioning. It just made me think and question if I was willing to go to such lengths that they did.”