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Celebrating The Black Panthers’ Oakland Community School

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An archival photo of bright smiles radiating from young Black students against a wood-and-chainlink fence.
Young students at the Oakland Community School, which served as a groundbreaking new model for education nationwide. (Donald Cunningham Collection)

“A school to serve the people.”

These are the words written boldly on a wall at the Huey P. Newtown Foundation’s headquarters in downtown Oakland, where they’re surrounded by a wealth of artifacts from the Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School’s archives.

There are notes on the school’s pedagogy and practice, and clippings from old periodicals. A black-and-white photo of Rosa Parks accepting flowers from a young student. A list of cultural icons — James Baldwin, Willie Mays, Maya Angelou, to name a few — who once visited the campus.

The Oakland Community School, preceded by other Black Panther led-schools (The Children’s House and the Intercommunal Youth Institute), opened in 1973 at 6118 E. 14th Street in East Oakland, where it operated until its closure in 1982. At its height it enrolled more than 150 students, and throughout its tenure maintained a waitlist that included unborn children, according to school director Ericka Huggins. A partial list of its alumni boasts San Francisco Foundation CEO Fred Blackwell, actress Kellita Smith (The Bernie Mac Show, Roll Bounce) and Money B of Digital Underground.

More impressive are the ways in which the school changed American education.

schoolchildren sit at a table as staff feed them lunch
Lunch is served at the Oakland Community School. (Donald Cunningham Collection)

The Panthers, whose free breakfast program for schoolchildren pushed the U.S. government to adopt a similar policy, are credited with designing an education system in which the community and school are not separate, but united. This paved the way for the model formally adopted by the Oakland Unified District in 2010, with its initiative to transform all schools into “full service community schools.”

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In 1977, the State of California’s deputy superintendent William Whiteneck noted that the Oakland Community School was a model educational institution. Today, 50 years after it opened in East Oakland, the California Department of Education is still incorporating elements from the Black Panther Party’s vision.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, this vision is celebrated during the grand opening of a year-long exhibit, Each One Teach One: The History of the Oakland Community School, curated by Jahi and housed at the Huey P. Newtown Foundation headquarters. Along with rare images of the school from photographer Donald Cunningham and original excerpts from The Black Panther newspaper, attendees will hear from those who played a significant role in the development of the revolutionary academic curriculum — and the archivists who’ve kept their legacy alive.

‘Each One Teach One: The History of the Oakland Community School’ opens on Saturday, Jan. 13, at 1427 Broadway in downtown Oakland, with a free opening reception from 7 p.m.–10 p.m. Details here.

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