An Ala. banner & its link to Black Panthers Party
The green and white banner was attached to what looked like a “Black Panthers” wall at the auction house. It blended into the arrangement of posters and photographs of party notables, set apart only slightly by the figure of a black panther striding across its center.
I swept my eyes over the display, but didn’t spend much time looking at it. Black Panther memorabilia seemed to be appearing pretty often at Swann Auction Galleries African American manuscript sales since a poster of Huey P. Newton in a wicker fan-back chair sold for $16,000 two years ago. By now, I was so used to seeing the artifacts that they no longer caused a stir in my brain.
Later, as I sat through the auction reading the catalog, I came across its description:
A very rare Panther artifact (Black Panthers). Stokely Carmichael. Black Panther ’67. Original Black Panther cloth banner from Lowndes County, Alabama, 33 x 24 inches; green and white stenciled linen with a black panther made of felt sewn on; the date “67″ stenciled at the bottom. Together with a group of three contemporary periodicals and a pamphlet dealing with the nascent Black Panther movement in Alabama. Estimate $2,500-3,500.
I found the history fascinating, but I was still nonplussed. It was only expected to bring in a couple thousand dollars, so how important could it be? (I later learned that this was not a banner but a guidon, a flag of sorts that represents a military unit and/or its commander.)
Was I wrong! When the banner came up for auction, the bidding went crazy. Representatives from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015) were in the thick of it – as they always are. But in the end, even they could not match the deep pockets of an off-site bidder who really wanted that banner.
It finally sold for $36,000 (without the 20 percent buyer’s premium). Handmade banners with the right history seem to do well at Swann. A Father Divine banner in purple and white felt sold two years ago for $30,000.
Lisbet Tellefsen, who lives in Oakland, CA, where the other Black Panther Party (BPP) planted its roots, had brought the banner to Swann after buying it online for a nominal undisclosed price.
Bouyed by the price and now curious about the banner, I wanted to know more about it and her. She graciously agreed to share the story with me:
1. How did you come across the banner?
At the time, I’d been hired to do an archival project on the Black Panther Party, which had me scouring the web for anything related. One day, I was online and stumbled across a homemade pennant flag with a black panther on it being sold among some random garage sale-type items. I was particularly intrigued by the flag’s green & white color scheme, which matched that of a 1966 publication “The Black Panther Party” which focused on the early Lowndes County Panthers. Other than pinbacks, I’d never seen a physical artifact from that period so I knew that if it was real it was extremely rare.
At the time I remember thinking that (buying) it was a gamble as I wouldn’t be able to verify its authenticity without seeing it first-hand. Once it arrived, I no longer had any questions about its age; my biggest concern was its condition. It was in horrible shape – water-stained with bugs encrusted in it. I took a risk and cleaned it up as best I could without destroying its integrity.
2. What’s the history behind the banner, the Alabama organization it represented, and Stokely Carmichael’s part in it?
In the summer of 1965, Stokely Carmichael and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to Lowndes County, Alabama, to help register voters. A political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed and became referred to as the Black Panther Party when they adopted the black panther as their emblem to counter the Alabama Democratic Party symbol of a white rooster and its slogan “White Supremacy/ For the Right.” The EncyclopediaOfAlabama.org website is a great resource for this history. (One of the organizers of the freedom group was a local activist named John Hulett, who had founded the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights.)
3. Why did you decide to sell it? Do you have some special use for the funds?
Though I’d love to have kept it for my personal collection, I felt this piece deserved better than ending up in some storage unit. I felt that the Swann Galleries African-Americana auction gave it the best chance of ending up in a good home where it could be better utilized.
I was completely shocked and humbled by the price this piece brought at auction. After the hammer (when the bidding was deemed over) the auctioneer, Nicholas Lowry, said that he thought this set the record for a piece of Black Panther memorabilia and I believe that to be true. While Uncle Sam will take a big chunk of it, hopefully these funds will enable me to pay off the debt I’ve incurred indulging in this endeavor and allow me to continue.
4. Do you know who bought the banner? Will it go into a museum or a private collection?
While I’m not sure who the buyer was, I’m more upset by who the buyer wasn’t. The collections curator from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was bidding vigorously on the pennant, and it was my dream for it to go there.
5. You are a Black Panther archivist. What does that mean? Do you collect and maintain artifacts from the Party?
I’m less of a Black Panther archivist than I am a personal archivist to several Black Panthers. Originally, my archival focus was Angela Davis, who I’ve known for over 30 years. I’d amassed a huge collection of archival material on her and was lucky enough to have opportunities for her to interact with the collection and add personal anecdotes. I began to experiment with personal chronology through archival material and as others saw what I was doing began asking if I would do similar projects for them.
In 2006 I met Ericka Huggins, a former leader in the BPP whose 14 years gave her the distinction of being the longest-standing woman in the Party’s history. Though she had an extensive history – as a political prisoner, as a defendant in a groundbreaking trial with Bobby Seale, even co-authoring a book with Huey Newton – she had little of her own personal history. She hired me as her personal archivist: I was given a small budget to track down what I could and that began my foray into creating a Black Panther archive.
While initially focused on materials related to Ericka Huggins, I began to see the power in building a comprehensive collection as opposed to having the history diluted as it was spread out in the wind. I began to amass my own collection – which today consists of hundreds of rare posters, photographs, publications and other ephemera. I’m also lucky enough to have access to many former party members and have had the opportunity to interview and record them as they interact with items from my collection. While old paper can certainly document history – I’m most interested in the personal stories behind them and I’ve had great success using archival material as “memory-joggers” to resurrect dormant memories.
6. What’s the most exciting item in your collection?
I have several distinct collections – well, they used to be distinct but are increasingly overlapping. I began collecting political posters in the ’80s and have a phenomenal collection of Che Guevara posters that has been exhibited around the country. My most important collection/archive is on Angela Davis and I have hundreds of posters, photographs and other artifacts, including several hundred pieces of trial correspondence. Currently, my favorite piece is a 1970 print by Faith Ringgold on Angela Davis titled “America Free Angela.”
7. What drives you to collect Black Panther memorabilia?
I never really set out to collect Black Panther memorabilia beyond posters – the rest happened more out of circumstance. At first I began building the collection on someone else’s behalf, however, as it grew I began to realize that I was uniquely situated to do it. I knew many of the principals and had access to overflow from some of the best collections in the world. And as the collection grew I got more and more excited as the related stories unfolded and more pieces of the puzzle were put back into place.
8. Is there a museum of sorts that has a collection of Black Panther memorabilia?
While I don’t know of any dedicated museums there are several large collections. The Huey P. Newton Foundation has a big collection at Stanford University. The main collection that I’m aware of is the collection of Bill Jennings, or Billy X as he’s known. He has done a wonderful job of keeping this history alive through his website http://www.itsabouttimebpp.com/.
9. How did you become interested in the Party?
I’m a little too young to have experienced them during their heyday. However, as a resident of Oakland the Panther legacy is a source of pride, and we’re fortunate to have living legends like Angela Davis and Black Panther artist Emory Douglas as members of our local community. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and work with quite a few party members. Bobby Seale has friends on my block and even came to my garage sale a few years back to browse & sign some posters.
10. Please tell me a little about yourself. What’s your background disconnected from the collecting?
That’s interesting, as collecting is such an integral part of my background. I did a talk at the Museum of the African Diaspora last year which focused on my journey as a collector. I’d never really thought about it before but I realized that I’d been building collections and archives literally since childhood. I grew up in the Golden Era of collecting where every kid on my block collected something: marbles, baseball cards, or comics. Our collections were our social currency. Since my mom didn’t have a lot of money I became extremely resourceful and tenacious – skills that serve me still.
Additionally, I traveled a lot as a kid and early on became obsessed with “remembrance” – feeling it was important to be able to hold onto memories. My constant traveling companion was a special suitcase where I would stash old programs and tickets so someday I would be able to put the pieces of my life back, like a jigsaw puzzle. Interestingly, that’s exactly what I do now for my clients.
Technically I’m a publisher. I started a trade publication in my 20s which kind of ran itself after the first 10 years. It’s afforded me the luxury of having time to explore my interests without having to worry about paying the bills. Over the years I’ve had many mini-careers: in public radio, as an Afro-Cuban ethnomusicologist, a percussionist/musician, publisher of a Black lesbian journal and an events producer.
However, the constant in my life has always been archives & collections, which has remained my focus over the years. In recent years, I’ve been getting gigs helping others work with their personal papers. I’ve helped several clients land handsome fees for moving their papers to institutional homes like Yale University. I’m now a personal archivist for a handful of clients – a few celebrity and several high-profile movement figures. Most recently, I was hired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to do individual archive projects on several Young Lords and Black Panthers, including Felipe Luciano, Jose Cha-Cha Jimenez, Bobby Seale, Emory Douglas and others. This project has kept me immersed in Black Panther and Young Lords history for the past year. I’ve become quite the movement archivist.
I feel completely blessed to get to spend my days doing something I’m so passionate about. I used to dream about this – and it’s come true.