Bay Area civil rights icon continues the Black Panther's legacy while building a new one

At age 80, Elaine Brown has no intention to stop building a better Bay Area, literally.

Kumasi Aaron Image
Monday, February 27, 2023
Bay Area civil rights icon continues the Black Panther's legacy
Elaine Brown, chair of the Black Panther Party founded in Oakland in 1966, is building a new legacy by creating homes for low income residents.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- ABC7 News is celebrating Black History Month and highlighting people who are working to Build a Better Bay Area. In the East Bay, one woman has been doing that for decades, and at the age of 80, has no intention to stop. ABC7 News Anchor Kumasi Aaron shows us how she's building homes, and a new legacy.

On 7th and Campbell in West Oakland, it's all about building. Not just this new apartment building. But legacy, community and wealth.

"I feel like I put one more footstep in the sand of time," says Elaine Brown. She is the woman behind the building going up, and she named it The Black Panther.

"Do you feel like this is a continuation of that legacy?" Aaron asked.

"I absolutely do," Brown replied.

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Elaine Brown served as chair of the Black Panther Party, an organization founded in Oakland in 1966, dedicated to fighting for housing, health care, food, employment and education for the Black community.

Now Brown says that work will continue in this building.

"What makes you proudest when you stand here?" Aaron asked.

"To know that this community that is dominantly Black that has been abandoned, has been has been destroyed in its beauty from Seventh Street from Esther's Room and Slim Jenkins Supper Club of black banks, that somehow we may resurrect the spirit of people reimagining community wealth," Brown answered.

Between the 1940's and 1960's, 7th street in West Oakland competed with San Francisco's Fillmore district for the title of Harlem of the West with its bustling music scene black owned businesses. But several urban renewal projects uprooted the black community.

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For more than 30 years, the lot where the building is going up now stayed vacant until the nonprofit Brown founded, Oakland and the World Enterprises, got a license from the city of Oakland to develop it.

Brown set her sights on a building with businesses and affordable housing. The biggest challenge? Its 80 million dollar price tag.

"Nobody knows how I did it," Brown says. "I don't even know how I did it. But I forced my way into the system to get enough money to do this."

More half the money to build the Black Panther's 79 units came from the state.

All the units will be for people with low income. Brown says the ground floor will be commercial space, with four businesses owned by people who are formerly incarcerated or economically marginalized.

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Brown made it a priority to hire Black contractors to build the Black Panther.

Antoine Long is the Project manager, and says it's something you don't see a lot.

"It's very significant," Long says. "It means a lot when people come people see that then they kind of get a different sense of you know, I can do that I can be there it can be possible."

The building isn't set to be finished until 2024, but Oakland and the World is already working with prospective residents.

Misty Cross and Tolani King, activists who occupied a vacant home in this area for two months to highlight Bay Area's housing crisis, are a part of the team engaging with them every week.

"It gives them an opportunity to be a part of Oakland's development," Cross says. "As we see all these nice buildings going up there unaffordable for us. So to see a nice project being affordable for black people to live in. It's a great opportunity."

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At 80 years old, Brown never imagined she'd be doing this.

"I didn't even think I'd be alive past 30," Brown says.

"We all thought we were going to die. But we did. And so if you didn't die, I had a duty excuse me to remember why did I start to work in the Black Panther Party? So I have to hold on to it, and do what I can as an individual."

Continuing the legacy of the Black Panther, while building a new one.

The Black Panther is set to be completed in Early 2024.

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