How a Surprise Discovery of Photographs From the 1960s Meets the Moment
A trove of images were found in a photographer’s family home. Now they are part of an exhibition opening next week in Harlem that captures pivotal years in the Black Panther Party.,
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Not long after his mother passed away in 2018, a massive relic from Jeffrey Henson Scales’ childhood was unexpectedly found in his family’s home. His stepfather and older brother were preparing the house for an eventual sale when they came across a trove of 40 rolls of film.
“We think these are probably yours,” they told Mr. Scales, a photographer and a photo editor at The New York Times.
Included in the rolls were photographs that Mr. Scales had taken when he was a teenager — images that captured major cultural, political and social moments of the 1960s. There were pictures of student protests in Berkeley, Calif., photos of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone at the famous Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and about 15 rolls of the Black Panther Party.
Mr. Scales was both thrilled and relieved that the photos had not been lost to time.
Now, they are part of an exhibition that opens Sept. 16 at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem. The exhibition, “In a Time of Panthers: The Lost Negatives” showcases a series of photographs captured by the young Mr. Scales when he was immersed in the Black Panther movement in Northern California. The images capture the movement — and its lasting reverberations and impact on today’s Black Lives Matter movement — and also mark a pivotal time in Mr. Scales’ life, when he realized his own power as an artist and young activist.
I spoke with Mr. Scales about his time with the Black Panther movement, how his photographs from that period remain relevant today and what he hopes for those who see his images. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get immersed in the Black Panther movement in Northern California?
My father was somewhat of an activist. We had moved from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco in 1964 to Berkeley, to this house that had a ballroom in it, and we had big parties. When Stokely Carmichael passed over the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to H. Rap Brown, they had the celebration and ceremony at our house. My mother would take me to the picket lines in San Francisco when I was a young child, when they were protesting segregated hotels. So we were activists.
It was 1967 and I was 13 and I had a lot of friends that still lived in Haight-Ashbury, and that was going to be the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. My parents said, “Well, maybe we’ll send him to stay with his relatives in the Midwest.” And so I went to Minneapolis to stay with my father’s sister. And then my grandmother was going to take me around to the different relatives in places like Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, and that turned out to be the “long, hot summer of 1967.”
There were riots in a few of these places in the urban centers and I hadn’t really seen anything like that. And I think I probably got a little bit radicalized to some degree and moved by it. And then the Panthers were starting to pick up in the Bay Area. So I started going and taking pictures of them and just hanging out. They gave me really incredible access. And I’m not entirely clear as to why, but they did.
What was it like being around all these moments at such a young age and capturing them?
Photography was like a hobby and it was something fun to do. My father was an amateur photographer and we had a darkroom at the house. But in Oakland and Berkeley, the Panthers were the coolest people in the movement. The whole presentation with the leather jackets, the berets. They were very cool. You had the hippies in San Francisco, and then you had the Black Panthers in Oakland, and it was very powerful and that was at a time in ’68, with the Vietnam War.
The movement was feeling like, we could change society. We could have an effect. It was a very exciting place to be. It was dangerous because of police violence against the Panthers. I remember being in the office where they had stacked up sandbags under the windows because you never knew when the police were going to just start opening fire on the office because they had done that at one of the Oakland offices.
As a teenager that’s all very exciting because you’re not that concerned with safety like you are as you get older. And I believed in trying to stop police violence against Black people in the community and the other basic issues of the civil rights movement. They went from two or three offices in the Bay Area to 60 across the country. There was a swell of attraction to this organization.
Walk us through a few of the images that are part of the exhibition.
This image was the day Huey Newton got out of jail. They called me and said, “Oh, he was getting out, we’re going to have a press conference.” And so I went over there when he was talking to the press. We knew each other from me visiting him in the Oakland jail during the trial, so this was one frame where he was actually making eye contact with me directly, which is why I like that frame.
I spent a lot of time photographing Bobby Seale. I remember considering that one of my first successful photographs that I really captured just like how I wanted it. When I was 11 or so, my father gave me a Leica camera. That was like my independent study of photography. I remember thinking the composition on this worked out really perfect.
I like this image of them all lined up and holding the famous Huey Newton poster by the photographer Blair Stapp. I like the guy with the ice cream cone. This is across the street from the Alameda County courthouse in Oakland. Apparently, my father worked on that poster with Blair and Eldridge Cleaver. He told me that in the 1990s.
Can you talk a bit about the parallels in these images to the moment that we’re living in now?
You see the repeated cases of police murdering Black people, and with the internet, cellphones and the media, we visually see how much brutality is happening. And then seeing the Black Lives Matter movement pick up, it had a certain familiarity. It brings back a lot of memories of that time and personal frustration that we’re still going over this. There’s a bit of sadness there. But at the same time, seeing a much broader movement is also inspiring.
Who do you hope the exhibition reaches?
I like that the gallery is in Harlem. I hope it reaches young people that aren’t familiar with this particular aspect of Black civil rights history. I hope it pushes people to look into what the Black Panther Party was actually about. The original Black Panthers were really about building an allyship with all races and all kinds of people. They were focused on the Black community, but they weren’t a nationalist organization. That was one of the conflicts that came with some of the other groups at the time.
They had an ideology and a platform for specific things that they wanted to do, and community service was a big thing that they did, serving the community and improving the community.
What did you learn being around the Black Panther Party?
As a young activist, I learned how important it is to have a concrete mission to help improve the community you’re speaking for. It’s not just about slogans and protests. It’s also about improving communities and serving underserved people in those communities, and how important that is. I’ve just sort of been recently thinking about what I learned and where it all fits 50 years later.
Pierre-Antoine Louis is a news assistant on the National Desk and a reporter for Race/Related. Much of his work focuses on race, identity and culture.