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The Dancer Who Helped Start the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program

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n the late 1960s, an uncommonly energetic 43-year-old named Ruth Beckford was teaching an Afro-Haitian dance class in Oakland. A dancing pro since the age of eight, Beckford had a habit of taking a close personal interest in her students. She taught the youngest ones a combination of life skills and etiquette to set them up for bright futures. She encouraged teens and young women to love themselves and pursue their dreams. And when one of her students told Beckford about her involvement with the Black Panther Party, Beckford was keen to be of assistance with that, too.

The student in question was LaVerne Anderson, who happened to be the girlfriend of Huey P. Newton. Beckford began by accompanying Anderson to some of Newton’s 1968 trial dates. In September of that year, when the idea for the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program first came up, it was Beckford who sprang into action and made it happen.

Beckford had long been a parishioner at Oakland’s St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, then situated at West and 27th Streets. Beckford approached her priest there, Father Earl A. Neil, to find out if St. Augustine’s was willing to host a daily program there to feed neighborhood kids. Father Neil agreed, and he and Beckford went about building a health code-safe kitchen and dining space, as well as a nutritionally balanced menu.

On the first day — a Monday in January 1969 — 11 children came to eat. By Friday, that number had swelled to 135. Beckford and Father Neil made such a success of the free breakfasts, the program was soon mandatory in all Black Panther chapters nationwide. It was also a shining example of Beckford’s ability to turn ideas into action, and to plant seeds that would one day create mighty forests. That’s something she had already been doing in her dance classes for 22 years before she got involved with the Panthers.

Several young Black boys, one of whom is wearing a suit, raise their hands to speak as they sit around a table, paper plates of food in front of them.
The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program — like this one in New York City in 1969 — combined education and good nutrition. (Bev Grant/ Getty Images)

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eckford was born on Dec. 7, 1925 in Oakland’s Providence Hospital to a Jamaican father and a mother from Los Angeles. Beckford was the youngest of four — she had a big sister and a pair of twin brothers — and was raised on 38th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. She grew up in a household so supportive that, when they saw her kicking along to music in her crib as a baby, her parents pledged to get her into dance class as soon as she was old enough.

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At three years old, Beckford began training in “every kind of dance,” her dedicated mom sewing all her costumes. It was clear from the beginning that the young girl was naturally gifted, and that dance was indeed her calling. By eight, she was a vaudeville dancer. By 14, she was teaching other children. At 17, she toured with the prestigious Katherine Dunham Company, where she fully embraced African and Caribbean dance for the first time. Beckford loved the work but declined a seven-year contract from Dunham so she could attend UC Berkeley instead. (Dunham remained a mentor and friend for life, and Beckford taught in her New York dance school in 1953.)

During her studies, Beckford was the only Black dancer in UC Berkeley’s dance club, Orchesis. The experience prepared her for working in majority-white companies later on. In her 20s, as the only Black dancer with the Anna Halprin and Welland Lathrop modern dance company, Beckford said she could sometimes hear the audience gasp as she arrived on San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre stage.

Once Beckford had graduated with a modern dance degree, she was keen to serve her community while doing what she loved most. First, she started an annual modern dance showcase that ran for over a decade. Then in 1947, aged just 21, Beckford started the Oakland Recreation Modern Dance Department — the first city-funded dance classes in the United States — and remained project director there for 20 years. Beckford insisted the classes be free so that anyone, no matter their means, would be able to attend. By the time she left in 1967, the department was running 34 modern dance classes for 700 students of all ages and abilities.

Of the importance of this program, Beckford later stated: “My philosophy for the young girls was, I would get them in through dance, but my whole goal was to make them be strong, free spirits. The girls got a lot of doses of self-empowerment training, self-esteem training,” she said. “Out of the thousands of girls that I taught, I knew a few would be dancers, but they all had to become women. I wanted them all to be strong young ladies — and it worked.”

These relationships were so important to Beckford, she prioritized them over having children of her own. “I feel if I had had children,” she said in 2000, “I would not have been the mentor to the hundreds and hundreds of girls I mentored. I would give them all the attention. I would tell them they were special.”

From 1954 on, Beckford was also running her own company, the Ruth Beckford African Haitian Dance Company. Her understanding of traditional styles was so exhaustive, she was invited to choreograph a folk festival in Haiti in 1958. At home, her company’s performances — comprised of six dancers accompanied by three drummers — were unlike anything most dance fans had seen in the Bay Area before. For a start, the company was comprised entirely of Black dancers — a refreshing contrast to the companies Beckford had grown up in.

A Black male dancer does the splits in mid-air, while two Black women dance either side of him.
Students and members of Ruth Beckford’s dance group rehearse a number in Oakland. (Ted Streshinsky/ CORBIS/ Corbis via Getty Images)

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fter Beckford retired from teaching in 1975, there was still no stopping her. She became an author, writing an autobiography, two cookbooks and a Katherine Dunham biography. She also co-authored The Picture Man, about Black Bay Area photographer E.F. Joseph. Her final work, Still Groovin’, was a book of spiritual advice and affirmations aimed squarely at mature women. “Women are sort of out there by themselves,” she said, “and women have to mentor each other. My book is a tool to help them become stronger.”

Still Groovin’ wasn’t her only means of trying to empower her peers. Between 1984 and 1988, Beckford wrote a trilogy of plays titled Tis the Morning of My Life, about a woman named Roxie Youngblood who finds herself in a relationship with a much younger man. Beckford admitted the story was inspired by her own life.

“I have a different energy, I think, to most men my age,” she once explained. “As long as I have this energy, I’m going to use it and have fun with younger people. Younger men have the energy I have, and I feel mine is worthy of that.” On another occasion, she noted: “Older women are marrying younger men nowadays because they find they have much more in common.”

When a New York theater asked permission to stage her first play, Beckford agreed only if the original Bay Area cast could perform it. “It’s time for New York to see what the West Coast can do,” she insisted.

For a lot of people, co-founding the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast program would have been the pinnacle achievement of a lifetime. That Beckford then went on to mentor generations of young Black women was a huge deal. And the sheer number of ways Beckford sought to be of service throughout her life is ultimately breathtaking.

She served on the Board of Oakland’s African American Museum and Library, where she also founded an oral history program. She counseled homeless people in Berkeley, and women in shelters and prisons around the state. She served on a dance panel at the National Endowment for the Arts and campaigned for better theater facilities in Oakland. She founded a women’s golf club. She even spent Thursday afternoons in the late 1990s volunteering in Jack London Square’s information booth so that she might pass on her passion for all things Oakland.

Ruth Beckford remained indefatigable (despite surviving five back surgeries and a hip replacement) until her death at age 93. Shortly before her passing on May 8, 2019, Beckford reflected on a life thoroughly well lived.

“I have a joyous life, I have a good time,” she said. “I choreographed my life. Step-by-step, year-by-year.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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