Oakland Library Wins Grant to Digitize Unused Footage of the Black Panther Party

The Black Panthers, with Elbert 'Big Man' Howard at right, engaged in a practice drill. (Pirkle Jones)

The African American Museum & Library at Oakland (AAMLO) announced this week that it won an almost-$20,000 grant to digitize and preserve donated archival footage of the Black Panther Party.

The museum and library received the collection of 98 films and four audiotapes in the early '90s. The reels reportedly consist of unused footage from the documentary film collective California Newsreel, and show the Black Panther Party and other protest movements from the late '60s and '70s. But the museum is not sure about what the 16-mm film footage contains, as its archivists haven't been able to view it.

"We don't even know what's on the reels," AAMLO archivist Sean Heyliger said Friday, adding that even the audio they have for the footage isn't labeled correctly. "Right now we don't know what goes with what."

Heyliger says a man named Henry Williams donated the footage around 1992 and lost contact with the museum since.

Film footage has a limited lifespan—between 50 to 75 years before it begins to deteriorate, according to Heyliger—and though the Williams archival film is still in good condition, the library wants to keep it that way, especially when it could include unseen footage of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton.

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"It's important to fill in the gaps about the history of California and African Americans and the Black Power movement that started in California," museum interim chief curator Susan Anderson told Hoodline Wednesday.

The footage also reportedly features recordings of Vietnam War protesters, as well as student protests at Oakland high schools following the police shooting of 16-year-old Melvin Black in 1979.

The grant AAMLO received was one of 16 "Recordings at Risk" grants awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) this spring. The grant specifically for supporting "the preservation of rare and unique audio and audiovisual content."

After digitizing the film, which AAMLO representatives estimate will take a year to complete, the museum will post the film online and make it accessible to the public. The footage will also be made available for licensing to filmmakers.

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