clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Photography by Pendarvis Harshaw

Filed under:

Oasis in East Oakland

Gentrification looms over the former home of the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary Oakland Community School

At 61st Avenue and International Boulevard, in East Oakland, California, there’s a mammoth building that consumes a solid portion of the block, but its unassuming appearance allows it to hide in plain sight. The walls stand two stories in height and are covered by a layer of cinder blocks. The chipped stained glass windows are evidence of the church that it was originally constructed as in 1966. If you’re driving down International, one of Oakland’s busiest streets, it’s highly likely that you’ll miss the sign atop the building, which reads "Men Of Valor Academy."

The unlocked front door leads to a hallway that’s as long as half of a football field. As you walk through the hallway, there’s an old church sanctuary to the left. To the right, there’s a series of small offices; and beyond them there’s a courtyard, classrooms, and a dining hall. Detached from the main building is a dormitory, one of the places on the property where an average of 50 men reside; the rest sleep upstairs, above the main building. On the other side of the property, again detached from the main building, there’s another sanctuary, which was a more recent addition. The men who stay there, or "clients" as they’re called, pay $500 per month and receive housing, food, and sometimes even clothing as a part of the Men Of Valor Academy’s program. Some men find employment outside of the building, some guys work on site. After a year in the Christian-based sober living environment, where clients take professional, vocational, and critical thinking classes, the men graduate and can apply for employment in higher staff positions or within one of MOVA’s associated organizations.

Employment is key for this population, as some men are on parole or probation. Others are in the process of overcoming substance abuse issues. And still others are guys who come in off the street searching for a place where they can rest their heads and get a meal; "walk-ins," as Keith Williams, Men Of Valor Academy director, calls them.

"The founder of this program, Bishop Bob Jackson, doesn’t want us to turn away anyone from this program," Williams says as he sits behind his desk in his office.

Bishop Bob Jackson’s Acts Full Gospel Church has owned the building since 1991, according to city records. And although Bishop Jackson’s group is making strides to better the community through MOVA, which has been around since 2004, they aren’t the first owners of the building to do work that benefits the neighborhood and its residents.

"The occupants at one time were the Black Panthers," says Williams. "And [the building] was here for the entire community."

In the fall of 1973, the Oakland Athletics celebrated winning their second of three consecutive Major League Baseball championships, and just down the block and around the corner from the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum where the team played, the Black Panther Party’s school was in session.

Oakland Now

Inside one of America’s most rapidly changing cities.

The Incredible Leaning Flip of West Oakland

Squatters, fraudsters, and flippers in the epicenter of Oakland gentrification.

Building a Better Tech Boom

How much will tech change Oakland, and how much will Oakland change tech?

Brooklyn Rises on the Oakland Waterfront

What happens when you drop an entirely new neighborhood into a rapidly gentrifying city?

A Musician Makes Her Oakland Home Sing

Zena Carlota’s household is a concert of instruments, travel artifacts, and vintage finds.

Between the time of its construction as the Calvary Temple in 1961 and Acts Full Gospel's ownership, the building at 6118 International changed hands a number of times. One of those owners, from 1973 to 1984, was a group called the Educational Opportunity Corporation—the legal name of the Black Panther Party’s school.

The concept of a Black Panther Party-run school had already undergone many incarnations. In 1970, it was located in Berkeley and called the Children’s House. In 1971, another rendition of the school was located in East Oakland’s Fruitvale District and called the Intercommunal Youth Institute. But in 1973, when the Oakland Community School opened its doors in East Oakland, Ericka Huggins says it got something that the other schools didn’t have before: space.

The building at 6118 E.14th Street (as International Boulevard was then called) opened its doors that fall to students from the local community, as well as students from across town whose parents were interested in the curriculum offered. It was a multi-level school that didn’t have grades determined by age, but instead separated students based on ability. Classes consisted of traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as yoga, martial arts, and Spanish. Instead of punishment, students who misbehaved or didn’t complete their homework assignment would have to address an advisory board of their peers. The young people were served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all the meals were prepared the day of.

It wasn’t uncommon for a student’s parents or grandparents to volunteer at the school. Initially funded by donations, eventually the school received funds from grants and a number of fundraisers. It wasn’t until the later years, when grants ran out, that the school asked for tuition of $25 per month for students who could afford it. And although it operated as an independent institution, it worked with the Oakland Unified School District when it came to allowing students to transfer to or from the Oakland Community School.

The school was the brainchild of Elaine Brown, Donna Howell, David Hilliard, and school director Ericka Huggins.

"When we moved in, there were 50 children," Huggins tells me during a phone interview. "But by the time the ‘73-’74 school year was complete, there were 90 children." Huggins says that they never turned anyone away. Although the capacity of the building was 150 students, they just developed a wait list—a list that she says sometimes even included unborn children. "I can’t tell you how many mothers and fathers came, and begged us, sometimes in tears, to take their children," says Huggins.

Oakland Community School images courtesy of Ericka Huggins

She refers to the school as "an Oasis," an institution of love within a working class/poor community of predominantly African American and Hispanic people. It was a place that accepted all races of students in the middle of a neighborhood where it wasn’t unheard of for young adults to fall victim to violence, prostitution, and drug dealing. Huggins says that after the students made the staff aware of the environment around the school, the Oakland Community School expanded their programs. There was a transportation service for seniors, known as the S.A.F.E. program, and Huggins says the programs the school ran for young adults worked as a deterrent from a possible life of crime. "We started the teen program, and some of those women came in off the streets. We started the teen program, some of those young men came in off the streets."

I can’t tell you how many mothers and fathers came, and begged us, sometimes in tears, to take their children.

Huggins, now a college professor, says that "[parents] didn’t want their children to learn about the Black Panther Party, although they appreciated the Black Panther Party; they just wanted them to learn." It was the ambition of the parents to give their children "private school education on a public school budget", and that resulted in a number of success stories.

Ronald Brooks, better known as "Money B" from the hip hop group Digital Underground, and Fred Blackwell, CEO of the philanthropic San Francisco Foundation, are former students. Actress Kellita Smith, well-recognized for her role on The Bernie Mac Show, was also a student at the Oakland Community School. In fact, there is a video of Smith as a child, interviewing Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton—foreshadowing her career in front of the camera.

To go along with a list of notable former students, the school boasts a list of highly respected visitors and lecturers. Maya Angelou stopped by the school and read poetry to the students on two separate occasions; the second time, she brought a friend by the name of James Baldwin. Soul Train host Don Cornelius and comedian/actor Richard Pryor stopped by the school for a fundraiser, which was broadcast on a local radio station. And civil rights leader Rosa Parks once took a seat in the old church sanctuary (which was converted to a school auditorium at the time) for a theatrical display put on by the students.

The names and stories that have walked in and out of the door at 6118 International Boulevard should make the old two-story, cinder block-covered building stand out against the background of East Oakland’s flatlands. But it’s just there. Overshadowed by the eye-catching murals and relatively new apartments on Seminary Avenue to one side, and the bright McDonald’s sign on 63rd Avenue to the other. When asked if the building should be registered as a landmark, Huggins exclaims "YES! YES! YES!" She continues, "Especially in the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Black Panther Party. I wish somebody would’ve thought of it before."

She suggests contacting the city to check the protocol on making a building a registered landmark, and concludes by saying, "If someone is going to make it a landmark, I’d hope that someone would put money into making it beautiful like it used to be."

According to the City of Oakland website, a landmark is made by submitting an application to the Oakland Landmarks Advisory Board, which then votes on the proposal. If they approve, the building becomes a registered landmark in the city (the process is different for state and national landmarks).

While making the building into a landmark might not be on the city’s radar as of yet, the remaking of the International Boulevard corridor is happening now. The city’s public bus company, AC Transit, is working on creating a rapid transportation line that will connect downtown Oakland to the small town just outside of East Oakland, San Leandro. It’s called the BRT plan, and many feel the new transportation option will gentrify the neighborhood.

City Councilmember Desley Brooks, who is responsible for this portion of International Boulevard, says that the implementation of the BRT plan "could lead to displacement of business owners and the start of gentrification in the east." She stresses that there could be immense change in a part of Oakland that has been relatively unscathed by the push-out of working class residents and the influx of middle class citizens, like what has happened in West and North Oakland. Brooks says, "It has the potential to do that, but the people have to be vigilant that the displacement doesn’t happen."

Before leaving the MOVA building, walking back through the long hallway and onto the ever bustling International Boulevard where the cinder block-covered building stands, Keith Williams tells me, "I think it’s important that this building gets remembered. Not so much just for the program that’s here now, but for its history." Although he’s only been the director of MOVA for eight months, he knows the importance of the building to the community. "There are some landmarks in this area, not just this building, that need to be recognized. People need to know. If it isn’t, it should be registered as a historical landmark."

Across town, at the intersection of 55th Street and Market Street in North Oakland, where the Black Panther Party worked to have a traffic light installed after a number of school kids were hit by speeding cars, there is a placard commemorating their efforts, but that’s not a registered landmark. The mansion inside of West Oakland’s DeFremery Park is now a community center and a registered landmark, not because the Black Panthers held programs there, but because it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city. DeFremery Park’s alternative name is Lil Bobby Hutton Park, named after a Black Panther member who was killed by the Oakland Police Department, but that name isn’t legally recognized either (Oakland will dedicate a grove in his honor this fall).

And while there are arguably less significant items on the list of local landmarks, such as the string of lights around Lake Merritt, the history of an educational institution in East Oakland remains relatively unmarked. It’s a building where a number of lives have been changed for the better over the past half century, and that should be acknowledged.

This October’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, scheduled to be held at the Oakland Museum of California, shows that it’s not unfathomable for the city or its institutions to honor the legacy of the Panthers. And while making the building a landmark doesn’t ensure that people in this community will not be displaced, it would preserve the history and legacy of what happened at the building at 6118 International—not only for impending new residents of East Oakland, but for the people who compose that community today. After all, the California Department of Education’s site still lists the school as active.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform