Educate to Liberate: Oakland Community School led to success by Black Panthers

At the corner of 61st and International in Oakland sits an old church building rich with history. Today the building belongs to the Men of Valor but from the early 70s to the 80s it was home to the Oakland Community School.

"Our school was child centered, community based, tuition free, and parent friendly," said Ericka Huggins, former Oakland Community School Director.

The Black Panther Party purchased the site in 1973 naming Huggins the school Director. 

"I didn’t know how to run a school but I knew what children and their families need," Huggins said.

That included three meals a day, extracurricular activities, and a think for yourself model that wasn't taught in the public school system. 

"Our kids were performing three times higher than their children in Oakland Public school so they could not block us from accreditation," said Dr. Saturu Ned. 

Ned, then known as James Mott, taught at OCS. The school accommodated 150 students ages 2 1/2 to 11, offering children from all over the Bay Area an alternative school. 

The school grew out of number five from the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program, which called for educating black and poor people about their "true history."  

"We wanted education that teaches us our true place in society and knowledge of self," Huggins said. 

"It was an oasis in an urban wasteland of miseducation," said Professor Steve McCutchen, who also taught at OCS.

McCutchen witnessed it first hand, low reading and math scores, but high suspension rates plaguing Oakland Public Schools at the time and disproportionately impacting black and brown children.

It was a tale all too familiar to Black Panther Party Co-Founder, Huey P. Newton, who was unable to read at the age of 15.

"It was more of a banking system," said Ned.

"We’re going to fill you with something and we don’t want objections, and what we’re telling you does not tell you anything about who you are. Most important of all we don’t want you to think, we don’t want you to know anything, we don’t want you to be productive and prosperous," he added. "We flipped that script and began to change that whole way of thinking and dynamic." 

So when OCS opened Huggins asked this question to her colleagues: "If you look back and could give to your little self the things you needed what would it be?"

The question birthed a unique curriculum that encouraged students to be seen and heard. 

"Even as a kid I was aware that there was something dynamic going on with these teachers and this school," said Gregory Lewis, a former OCS student. 

Lewis attended the school from birth, when OCS opened, until his parents left the Panthers in the 80s.

He said he was encouraged to speak out and think critically. 

Lack of funding, government harassment, and community ailments forced OCS to close in 82. The closure forced students, including Lewis, into a different reality.

"A lot of my adjustment to public school had to do with working to silence my voice," Lewis said. 

Still, Lewis preserved. He graduated from college, law school, and he's now raising three college graduates of his own.

"The Panther school was really the foundation to my eventual education achievements," Lewis said. 

School to parent to student connection, it's this foundation that Panthers tell me fostered OCS' success.

"The impact for me is still reverberating today and we’re actually riding a new wave," Dr. Ned said at a recent meeting with the Black Teachers Project. 

Since the late 70s schools around the world have replicated the OCS model. Today, former party members continue to work with educators, like the Black Teacher Project, to continue to bring power to the people.

But, OCS was just one of the 65 survival programs the Black Panther Party created. To find out more about the party, the legacy, and the work being done stop by the Black Panther Party website, the Black Panther Party Legacy Keepers website, and keep an eye out for an upcoming documentary about the Oakland Community school here