Blog

November 17, 2016

A Legacy in Photographs

Kenneth Green, Jr. rediscovers his father’s archive, capturing a pivotal era of Oakland and Black Panther Party history

By Lisa Silberstein, Experience Developer

With contributions from Claudia Leung, Digital Communications Specialist

Kenneth Green, Sr. was the first African American staff photographer at The Oakland Tribune. He documented cultural and civic life in Oakland from 1968 until his tragic death in 1982 at the age of 40. Green’s photography included images of history-making candidates like Ron Dellums and the beginning of the Black Panther Party.

Green’s son, Kenneth Green, Jr., was born and raised in Oakland, and has spent years slowly uncovering the archive that his father amassed during his time as a photography student at Laney College and on the staff of The Oakland Tribune. As Kenneth Green, Jr. adds more photos to the online archive of his dad’s work, we talked to him about the historic importance of these images, finding his dad through photography, and what it means to have his father’s images shown to the public at the Museum.

Lisa Silberstein: Some of your fathers’ photos that we’re showing in the exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 were ones that you found in your grandmother’s house. Can you tell me about that story?

Kenneth Green: Yes. I’ve had boxes of pictures that I’ve carried around, but my grandmother is the matriarch of the family, so she’s always had lots of pictures, wedding dresses, and everything at home. She held everything. It wasn’t until the Tribune was getting ready to move from their storage in downtown Oakland, and they arranged to have whatever photographers were around that wanted the work to come and get it. Ron Riesterer at the time was the photographer for the Oakland Tribune. He said, “Kenny, they’re getting ready to throw this stuff out on the street. They’re putting it in the trash. Do you want your dad’s stuff?” I said, “I’d love to have it.”

That was maybe 15 years ago. Because of it being my father's, I just took all the pictures and I shoved it in a dark room in the garage, and I never touched again, ever. That was grief to me. It wasn’t until one afternoon—I used to fish along the delta, in Oakley and Antioch, and my grandma lives out there now. I would stop by when I finished fishing. She always had an envelope or a box of pictures to give me. “Hey son, I’m just cleaning up. Got something for you.” This one particular day that I went by, she actually gave me some pictures, and when I opened it up, they were Black Panther Party images. I started to cry then, that afternoon, because I understood that it was now time for me to look deeper into my dad’s collection. I couldn’t avoid it anymore.

That evening I went home, started looking at pictures that she’d given me, and decided to go outside, get the flashlight, go into the garage, and pull out all of the boxes from the back wall and bring them in the house. I started dusting them off. The first box I touched was all his Tribune stuff. Once I pulled it out, I knew that I was onto something. I gradually started going through them. It continued to come up, and I started to go into the boxes a little deeper.  

I reached out to a good friend of mine Robert Edwards and in turn he helped me meet with Professor Emeritus Russ Ellis. He suggested I contact the African American Studies Department Associate Professor Leigh Raiford. I went to UC Berkeley, and we invited staff members at Cal and UC Santa Cruz over to the campus to give me some direction on what I could possibly do with this work that I found.    

LS: Your father wasn’t in the Black Panther Party, but how do you think your father’s photography speaks to the legacy of the Party?

KG: My dad had a different relationship, because he was a student on campus with everyone. He was a colleague; he was a peer. He wasn’t an outsider. Basically, he wanted to share his expression of what was going on at the time on campus, and they gave him permission to do it. I wouldn’t expect anything less than something close and candid.

My dad’s colleagues that have asked me over the years, “Ken, what are you going to do with your dad’s work?” I’d show them pictures of their careers, when they were students, before they graduated, before they retired. I get to share with them a softer side of being born and raised in Oakland—other than, you know, all of the strength and resilience, and how they portrayed the Party being very violent and aggressive. It gave me a different outlook on being a Bay Area native with a dad who was an artist.

LS: I’m curious if there’s any story in particular you’d like to share about these photographs.

KG: I am a ’69 baby, so I wasn’t born when these pictures were taken. I get to see it freshly as you do, as everyone else does. You have Oakland, you have community, you have education in the schools, and of course you have stuff like the shootout of the Black Panther Party headquarters.

I don’t have a particular statement other than awe myself, because I wasn’t materialized yet. I consider it to be, you know, it’s hard to describe. I’m looking at the pictures and this is very much how I was raised as my dad. I was with him when he took pictures. I was with him when he developed pictures. I was with him when he showed the images. I consider this very much to be a reflection of my dad and how he raised me.

LS: In a way, because you’re showing your father’s photography, you’re seeing the world through his eyes. It’s like he’s still present.

KG: I am. Handling the images for the last six to seven years has taught me that my father’s no longer “over there.” He’s no longer a story of a man who lived his life and passed away young. I’ve come to my own as a man and that means coming into who my father is and was before me. That is the root, the foundation, the grounding piece that helps me to stand as a man.

LS: I imagine you’ve met some of the people in these photographs. Have you ever heard their stories about the photographs?

My dad was a photojournalist for the Oakland Tribune from May 1968 to June 25, 1982. He began his career with the Knowland family and it ended with the Robert Maynard family. So, everybody’s up in age now. I see everyone in office and retiring and going on to all kinds of things. I would love to see the expression on Ron Dellums’ face to show him when he was running his campaign and my dad did the photoshoot for him, when he was running for Congress. Or the gentleman who had a shoe shine in West Oakland over on 7th Street. I remember the Parks & Rec teacher who helped us do arts and crafts. I’d love to give them an opportunity to see themselves again. I think the images are going to help give more to the story that people talk about that Oakland was experiencing in the 1960s and ‘70s. They’re going to help stimulate a lot of other interesting stories. I’m excited to see that.

LS: I’m excited to hear about those stories. It’s a lived history and a living history. What does having this archive of your father’s photography mean to you?

KG: There’s more sharing with my family. Our having to deal with the grief of my father’s passing has brought us closer together. It’s definitely helped open up a dialogue with other family members since I’ve started using the images.

My dad being an artist helped to give me a much broader perspective on life, the human race, being African American, and born and raised in Oakland. I’m able to live my life fully. That’s the direct result of my father being creative, and an intellectual. He wanted me to be able to really think and use my mind.

LS: It’s such a gift, that your father’s given, and that then you’re giving. That’s really beautiful. What does it mean to you to share your father’s photography with the public in a forum like this exhibition?

KG: That part is amazing. I grew up as a child thinking of my dad as just being my dad. We had a walking museum in our house. There was no wall that wasn’t covered in some kind of matted print, with scotch tape or sticky backs or something. To show those images as I grew up with as a child to the general public only gave me more of a real drive to pull more of the images out to share, because there is so much more.

I want Oakland to connect with their history. It was a very rare opportunity for my father to be a photographer in the early ‘60s. He documented the life and culture of the Bay Area. It gives me no greater honor and privilege than to share my dad’s legacy with the Bay Area and the world, and to watch my family come alive again.

 
All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 is on view in the Great Hall through February 12, 2017.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.