"I'm hopeful that they dig a little deeper to see that this organization was based on love," Fredrika Newton.
OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Dr. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, would have turned 81 this year. His life story has been shared by many, but no one knows it quite like his widow, Fredrika Newton. She sat down with ABC7 News anchor Jobina Fortson for a conversation about her late husband's life, the revolution he led, and their love. The interview took place on a median along Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. The location is the site of a bronze bust created to honor Dr. Huey P. Newton. The statue was unveiled there in 2021.
To better understand the man, it's important to get to know the party he helped create. The Black Panther Party, originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was founded in Oakland in 1966 during the Black Power Movement. It began as a grassroots organization that dispatched legally armed members to monitor police misconduct and inform people of their rights. It quickly morphed into an international party that developing social, educational and health programs to serve Black and other oppressed communities.
"Everyone knew about the Black Panther Party," Fredrika said. "I didn't have any intimate knowledge of the party. I was a little intimidated by the party. I wasn't politically active."
Fredrika was born and raised in Oakland, Calif. and still lives in the city today.
"I wasn't intimidated by what the party did or stood for," she continued. "What intimidated me was that I just felt that I wasn't enough. I didn't have a loud enough voice and that I really wasn't Black enough to be a part of this vanguard organization. I was a teenager. I was raised in an activist family. My mother was an activist and we were marching in demonstrations from the time we could walk. But I, like many teenagers, I wanted to do exactly the opposite of what my parents were doing."
Fredrika credits her neighbors, including Tom Hayden who was a prominent social activist and at one time married to Jane Fonda, for her formal introduction to the party. On Aug. 5, 1970, Fredrika's neighbors took her to the "Free Huey" rally as he was released from prison. The rally drew a massive crowd of supporters outside of the Alameda County Courthouse.
"I remember being really close to him when he was standing on top of the Volkswagen and being kind of mesmerized by it," Fredrika went on. "You know, he looked like a God and the crowd around me was so diverse. I remember being struck by that."
Following this experience, Fredrika went off to college in Oregon, but she returned home on school break to an encounter that would change her life.
"My mother announced that he (Huey) was coming over for breakfast," Fredrika said. "She told me that she was actually doing work for the party. She was a realtor. Her whole life, she fought against redlining and racism in the real estate industry. That was her work. She was responsible for placing Huey in a secure place when he was released from prison."
Fredrika's mother, Arlene Slaughter, was Jewish and a statewide leader in the fair housing movement. She made Black homeownership possible for many families in Oakland and Berkeley.
"My mother would pose as the buyer," Fredrika said. "She was responsible for the first Black family buying a home in San Leandro."
The Black Panther Party was Arlene Slaughter's client.
Fredrika described what her home looked like the day she and Huey met, "It was a little Berkeley brown-shingle small house and it was packed full of people."
"I remember what I wore that day," Fredrika continued. "I was wearing some purple tie dye pants and a top that didn't even match, a gold top. I remember they were asking all these ideological and esoteric questions of him, political questions. It was way over my head in the conversations."
The high-brow questions didn't stop Fredrika from asking Huey the one thing that was on her mind at the time.
"I thought it was rude that I hadn't asked him anything," she continued. "So then I asked him a question, the only question that really was of interest to me and that was, 'What was it like for you in prison?' I wanted to know who this guy was. He seemed so vulnerable. He was eating a lot and seemed a little nervous. I just wanted to know. Even at that young age, I was more interested in who the people were rather than what they did,"
Fredrika went on. "He put down his fork and he was really thoughtful when he looked down, and then he looked up at me. He said, 'It was very lonely in prison.' Something in that moment, it really kind of captivated me."
That exchange Fredrika had with Huey never left her.
Fredrika packed her bags in Oregon, moved back to Oakland, and began dating Huey. She didn't join the Black Panther Party right away.
"He never encouraged me to join the party," Fredrika responded. "I think he was a little disappointed when I did, or concerned, because it was hard."
Fredrika began volunteering at the party's liberation school, which later became the Oakland Community School.
"The school was a place where party members' kids not only went to school, but lived because we all lived communally," she explained. "Everybody was working 24/7 so we needed a safe place for the children to be. Someone likened it the other day to homeschool because none of us were trained. We weren't educators, but we were trying to teach kids how to think and teach them their own history that wasn't taught in schools. Even now, the Black Panther Party history isn't part of any curriculum of any public school."
Back then before the school day started, the party was feeding the community through the free breakfast program. Along with the 10-point program (or 10-point platform) that established the goals and direction of the party, there were 65 survival programs. Some of the survival programs included the newspaper, free ambulance services and even free clinics testing for sickle cell anemia and lead poisoning.
"Down here particularly, with down here being in West Oakland, the houses had lead in the paint and lead is sweet," Fredrika said. "The babies were peeling the paint off the wall and eating the lead because it's sweet, and dying, or having brain damage. We were giving the community basic programs and looking after their basic needs because the government wasn't doing that"
In 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party "the greatest threat to internal security of the country." Later that year, Chicago police fired more than 90 bullets into an apartment killing local party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and critically wounding others while the group was sleeping. The FBI also launched an aggressive counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) aimed at dismantling the Black Panther Party through physical attacks, misinformation and infiltration.
"We assumed that we wouldn't live a very long life," Fredrika explained. "Our comrades were being killed and they were young. Everybody was young. So we lived our life in the moment as though there might not be a next moment."
All throughout this turmoil, there was Fredrika and Huey, the comrades and couple navigating the highs and lows of love over the years.
"It wasn't an easy relationship to navigate given the whole backdrop of what we had going on," Fredrika said.
The Black Panther Party officially dissolved in 1982. COINTELPRO and the dissolution of leadership largely contributed to its demise.
"Huey and I were married many years later after the party ended," Fredrika said. "It still wasn't easy. He was, he was hunted and so there was surveillance and it never ended. After we were married, our own home was raided twice by the police. He was followed, he was harassed, and virtually unemployable. Who was going to hire Huey Newton in the 80s to do anything? We didn't have much money and I think it was the biggest heartbreak for him that finally we get married, and he's unable to take care of his family in a way that he would have liked to have done."
Fredrika described her late-husband's challenges as painful to watch. He faced legal challenges, including pleading no contest to embezzling state money from the Panther-founded Oakland Community school, and he was fighting addiction. His family held tight to moments of joy.
"He was a wonderful father to my son," Fredrika said. "I think he was at his best when he was with children. I think children know the essence of someone, so when children are attracted to you, that's a good thing."
Fredrika lights up when she recalls happy times with her late-husband.
"Huey was in my system and I loved him,' Fredrika said. "I just loved him."
People can intellectually prepare to lose someone. Given their years of activism, Fredrika did. But in reality, her preparation was no match for the grief that gripped her on Aug. 22, 1989.
"The last time that I saw Huey was in my kitchen," Fredrika said. "We didn't have any money and we were waiting on a movie deal actually, his life story. That was kind of going to be it. That's what we were waiting on, this movie deal to come through. That day he got a phone call and the deal had fallen through. So, he told me that the movie deal fell through and I had an appointment and I needed him to go pick up our son from summer camp and then we could talk about it when he got back. I said, 'You know it's going to be all right. We're going to work through this.'"
Fredrika, who a month prior left her nursing position at Highland Hospital, was awakened the next morning by a call from a former colleague demanding that she contact the emergency room.
"They put me on hold for a long, long, long, long time," Fredrika explained. "Finally, this doctor gets on the phone and I said, 'My name is Fredrika Newton and I understand that my husband Huey Newton is there in the emergency room.' He said, 'Your husband's dead.' Yeah. That's how I found out."
Fredrika remembers the moments at the hospital following her husband's death so clearly. "They kept me in this little room that I'd heard people screaming from all the time that I had worked there in that trauma center," she said. "There's a scream that comes. It's almost, you can't describe it. That scream of sorrow when somebody's loved one has died."
Dr. Huey P. Newton was gunned down by a man who was a drug dealer and member of the Black Guerilla Family. It happened a block from where Fredrika and Jobina conducted their interview. The two walked down the street to where Huey took his last breath. It was near a light pole at 9th and Center Streets in West Oakland. A stretch of 9th Street was renamed Dr. Huey P. Newton Way in 2021.
"All of the sudden, I have the whole legacy of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton land in my lap," Fredrika said. "I just felt ill prepared to know how to handle it and so for many years, I didn't."
In 1995, Fredrika co-founded the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation to preserve and promote the history of the Black Panther Party. The foundation has published books, created the first permanent public art piece on public land commemorating the legacy of the party, and much more.
"We're working with the National Park Service to create a Black Panther Party National Park as well," Fredrika said. "We are working with the Oakland Museum. We've created a virtual reality piece which will be in the museum and other places. We're working with the state to create a curriculum so that now the Black Panther Party history is in every textbook from K through 12."
When asked what she thought Huey would say about how far she and the foundation have come, Fredrika paused and then replied, "I wonder. I come down here (the site of Huey's bust). I come down here a lot and I talk to him. I think he'd be really proud."
Fredrika and Jobina rode around Oakland together and there's evidence of Huey's legacy and the global movement he helped create just about everywhere. People are continuing to learn more about the party's history like the unknown women of the organization. At one point, women made up over 70 percent of the Black Panther Party.
Some scholars have characterized the Black Panther Party as the most influential organization of the 1960s, while other academics found their work more criminal than political. The history is undoubtedly controversial, but it's fascinating to see it go from being vilified in mainstream media to now imitated in pop culture and even inspire a Marvel superhero.
"I'm actually not mad at it," Fredrika said. "I love that people have embraced the spirit of the Black Panther Party and I'm hopeful that they dig a little deeper to see that this organization was based on love. That young men and women did all this work that we've talked about, laid their lives on the line, sacrificed their family, and all things material out of the love for the community."
If you'd like to learn more about the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation and their community efforts, visit hueypnewtonfoundation.org.
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