The Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast Program: A 50-Year-Old Blueprint

Billy X Jennings (Pendarvis Harshaw)

On Saturday, Oct. 12, a few former members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense will convene at what's commonly known as Lil Bobby Hutton Park in West Oakland (DeFremery Park by others) to serve free breakfast.

It's the same thing they were doing exactly 50 years ago.

This time around, it's in collaboration with the arts and culture festival Life Is Living. Since 2007, the organization Youth Speaks has thrown the annual event, bringing the likes of Questlove and Mos Def to the Bay Area. And since 2010, they've been serving free breakfast too—inspired by the legacy of the Panthers.

The simple action of feeding the community—especially schoolchildren, prior to classes—has been undertaken since in many different shapes and forms, by numerous organizations and institutions. Earlier this year, I wrote about The People's Breakfast Oakland, and last year I wrote about The East Oakland Collective’s efforts. Both would tell you they were inspired by the Black Panther Party.

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Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture had to have taken note of what the Black Panthers were doing. The government School Breakfast Program became a "permanent entitlement program by Congress" in 1975, six years after the Panthers launched their program in the basement of Oakland’s St. Augustine Church, in January 1969.

One of the people serving pancakes, oatmeal and hot cocoa to the young students back then was Billy X Jennings.

Billy X Jennings, the Black Panther archivist, pictured in Sacramento.
Billy X Jennings, the Black Panther archivist, pictured in Sacramento. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

“The breakfast program really influenced my thinking as a young person,” said Jennings, the Black Panther Party's archivist, sitting at a restaurant near William Curtis Park in Sacramento. “I was actually doing something to change the conditions.”

I'd reached out to Jennings as soon as I moved to Sacramento. It was my first face-to-face meeting with him after being aware of his work for over five years: he maintains the official Black Panther Party website, ItsAboutTimeBPP.com. He also organizes, promotes and documents BPP events. When I noticed him promoting the 50th anniversary of the Breakfast Program, I figured it was time to break bread.

He took me back to the origins.

“Huey [P. Newton]’s girlfriend at the time (LaVerne Anderson) was taking an Afro-Hatian dance class from Mrs. Ruth Beckford-Smith, the famed dancer,” Jennings told me. “And then, she told Ruth Beckford-Smith about the Party, Ruth Beckford-Smith told Father Neil, and Father Neil let them use his church to start the breakfast program," Jennings said, matter of factly.

In a piece recapping his connection with the Party, Father Neil writes, "We began with 11 youngsters the first day (a Monday) and by Friday we were serving 135 students."

At the time, Jennings was a fresh high school graduate, class of the turbulent year of 1968. On the night of graduation, he got on a bus out of San Diego and ended up in Deep East Oakland, on 75th and Spencer, not too far from where the A’s had just opened their new coliseum two years prior; the Raiders were playing there too.

“By our house, every time they’d make a touchdown, they’d shoot off this big cannon. Boom!” Jennings said loudly. “All over East Oakland, you’d hear the cannon and you’d know we made a touchdown,” he said with a laugh.

In Oakland, Jennings didn’t have to go far to be influenced by the culture: his neighbor was in charge of distribution of the Panther Newspaper. “The Party had this big old van that had a panther on the side of it. I think it was an old milk truck, if you know what a milk truck looks like from back then,” Jennings said, looking at me through his glasses.

On top of going to school at Laney College and working at McDonalds near 68th and Foothill, he started doing work for the Panthers. He had a paper route that covered an area of East Oakland that stretched from the newly opened Eastmont Mall to the intersection of 98th Avenue and E. 14th Street.

Jennings' work was based out of the East Oakland Panther office, which was originally on 73rd Avenue and E. 14th Street before moving to 99th Avenue and E. 14th Street. While working there, he was asked to partake in learning the ins and outs of the Breakfast Program, so he went over to St. Augustine's.

“In the morning, I’d get to the church and help them out for about three hours," he recalled. "And then my first class would be at 9am at Laney.”

A sign marking a free breakfast location in Oakland.
A sign marking a free breakfast location in Oakland. (PBS)

Soon after, the Party opened breakfast programs all around Oakland. “We opened a breakfast program in Jingletown, at the Mary Help of Christians Church,” Jennings said, as his hamburger was served. “Then we opened a program on 62nd Avenue, at St. Bernard Church. And then we opened another one on Douglas and Edes, by the railroad tracks in Brookfield."

The Panthers got donations from local businesses and continued to expand, opening up a program at a former community center on 99th Avenue. Jennings says DeFremery Park was only used for about six months, until the center on 12th Street near Campbell Village was reopened.

"We used to feed a bunch of kids in the village," Jennings said, referring to the housing projects.

“At that time, Oakland was way below the poverty level," Jennings told me. "We had people moving from Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and they were living in their cars and stuff like that—car full of people, 7–8 kids!” I ate and thought to myself how Oakland still has issues with poverty and homelessness. According to the 2017 Alameda County Homeless Census Survey, "Unaccompanied children and transition-age youth represented 18% of the overall (homeless) population in 2017, an increase from 7% in 2015."

Back then, they were fighting many of the same issues. “Kids would go to school hungry, and they’d faint. And the school had put a Band-Aid on the problem, saying, ‘Take this person home so they can get some food.’ Duh, if they would’ve had some food, they would’ve ate some food,” Jennings said.

Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Black Panther Archivist Billy X Jennings at the West Oakland Library in February 2016.
Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Black Panther Archivist Billy X Jennings at the West Oakland Library in February 2016. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

I brought up the issue of homelessness in Oakland. Jennings agreed that it's crazy right now. When I asked what people could gain from looking at the infrastructure of what the Black Panthers did, he went in.

“The Black Panther Party was a vanguard organization. The vanguard’s responsibility was to set the table, the rest is up to young people—the rest is up to you. We showed people, this is how you feed people in the community. This is how you defend people in the community, you know?" Jennings took a breath, and continued.

"You start programs, you take care of your people, and then you start a clinic. The professional people from our community who went to college, or went and got the skills, you give them an institution where they can provide, where they can help, you know?”

He hadn't taken a bite from his burger in some time. He'd been too busy rattling off reasons why the Panthers' work was foundational to steps that should be taken today to cure the societal issues faced by Oakland and the greater Bay Area.

Imagine: simply relying on community power to fix community problems, while uplifting those who are most impacted—the poor, opposed and marginalized. Imagine us being that solution-minded. We wouldn't be having a stupid tug-of-war about putting boulders on the street to deter unsheltered people from sleeping there, I'll tell you that much.

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As Billy X Jennings succinctly put it, “50 years ago, we started a program that has now fed millions of Americans, all because we put social theory into practice.”

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