Landmarking the Black Panther Party

The walls of the Church of the Epiphany in Chicago are two feet thick, made of red-brown sandstone from the upper peninsula of Michigan. Designed by Francis Whitehouse and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s a preeminent example of the Richardson Romanesque architectural style. The ornate floral masonry detailing on its facade bears witness to its costly construction: Upon opening in 1885, it was the most expensive building the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Illinois had ever built, surrounded by affluent neighbors in the city’s West Loop neighborhood.

But by the 1960s, it had a different constituency. Then informally called the People’s Church, the building was an organizing hub for the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. There, members of the revolutionary civil rights group hosted free meals for children and led classes, meetings and rallies — including chapter chairman Fred Hampton’s last speech before he was shot by police in December 1969.

The feeling of sanctuary behind these engine-block thick walls was more than metaphorical: The Panthers felt the Chicago police, who had raided their headquarters, would not break down the doors of a church. It was “liberated territory,” said Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter co-founder Bobby Rush, who later represented Chicago in Congress for 30 years. “We felt safe there.”

Chicago public school students participate in a Black Panthers rally
The Church of the Epiphany in 1970, when Chicago public school students participated in a rally against racism organized by the Black Panthers.Photo: Chicago History Museum
The church in its current role as the Epiphany Center for the Arts.Photo courtesy of the Epiphany Center for the Arts

The storied church — known today as the Epiphany Center for the Arts, a multipurpose art and events center — is now part of a unique historic preservation project. It’s one of dozens of Chicago-area properties associated with the Black Panther Party that have been listed in a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Document. The designation defines the broad history and cultural context of the Black Panthers in Illinois, so that additional Black Panther sites can eventually be added to the historic register or have their status updated, like the Church of the Epiphany, which has had its National Register nomination updated with the history of the Panthers.

Spearheaded by the Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the listing was approved by the state of Illinois and the National Park Service in December. That in itself is a landmark of sorts: It’s the first time the Panthers’ history and significance in the built environment has been recognized by the federal government in a Multiple Property Document.

Black Panthers headquarters weeks after raid
The damaged facade of the Black Panthers headquarters in the aftermath of a police raid in 1969.Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

The preservation society was created by Billy Brooks, one of the founders of the Illinois chapter, and Leila Wills, whose parents were Panthers. Not trained as a historic preservationist, Wills took on a tough job. Many primary sites associated with the party have been demolished, including its West Side and South Side headquarters, medical clinic, and the Monroe Street building where Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were killed. Over the last several years, Wills had to not only learn the workings of the local, state and federal landmarking apparatus, but also bring along a community of people not disposed to trusting the government.

Opposition to the effort has emerged from unexpected directions, and feelings around the group and its history in Chicago remain bitterly contested. In the late 1960s, federal authorities portrayed the party as a rampaging street gang; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and directed the bureau’s COINTELPRO counter-intelligence program to disrupt the group’s membership — a campaign that, most scholars agree, culminated in Hampton’s assassination.

Now Wills and other activist preservationists are determined to reframe the Black Panther narrative, peeling back layers of trauma around the party’s story and reading it into the record of America’s historic structures.

“I want the party and their work to be part of the official record of the city and state — not the smear campaign,” says Wills. “If the state granted us our landmarking, they have to tell those difficult stories.”

To map the footprint of the Panthers in Chicago, Wills and her team (which included Loyola University Chicago graduate students Mikey Spehn and Adam Yunis) interviewed 30 members and a dozen others associated with the party. The report’s “period of significance” is pegged at 1968 to 1974, placing it within the 50-year benchmark often required for historical recognition. But it looks much further back, beginning its accounting of the Black experience in Chicago with Jean Baptiste DuSable, a Black man that was the future city’s first non-native settler in the late 18th century. Then it follows the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South in the early 20th century and the rise of the Black Power movement, with its focus on militant self-determination.

“We wanted people to know that this Black Power movement took decades — a century, even,” says Amy Hathaway, a survey and national register specialist with the Illinois State Preservation Office who helped shepherd the Panthers’ nomination through the approval process.

Black Panthers host free breakfast program for kids
Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton speaks to children at a free breakfast program.Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Former Panther Lonnie Hall, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi when she was 15, lived through several phases of this history. Her parents were sharecroppers and she was raised in an atmosphere of oppressive subservience, she recalls. “They could do anything to you and you had no rights,” she says. “That’s where I came from.”

The Panthers offered her the ideological framework to shatter that reality; she signed on in 1968, attending political education classes and helping run a free breakfast program on the Near North Side. The party sponsored 65 different community programs, of which the free breakfast program is the most well-known. That effort fed up to 4,000 kids a day, and the sites that hosted the program form the bulk of properties identified in the national register report.

Many are older churches like St. Martin De Porres, with its elegant neo-Gothic spire. First Baptist Church in Melrose Park, where Hampton’s funeral was held, is a rare mid-century modern structure; a photo from the Chicago Sun-Times showed mourners packed into its gabled roof balcony. Some churches identified have already been demolished, and others are threatened. On the South Side, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church is vacant, its shattered stained-glass windows now looming black voids.

Some churches connected to the Panthers’ tenure in Chicago are still in use, such as St. Martin De Porres on the city’s West Side.Credit: Zach Mortice/Bloomberg CityLab
Others are now vacant, like Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, which opened in 1923.Credit: Zach Mortice/Bloomberg CityLab

In some instances, layers of Chicago progressivism are collapsed into a single space. In 1971, the Panthers held sickle cell anemia testing at William Penn Elementary School, an early 20th century facility designed by school architect Dwight Perkins, a staunch progressive who found common cause with Jane Addams and education reformer John Dewey. Perkins saw schools as holistic community infrastructure, including vocational training rooms, science labs for adult evening classes, and auditoriums that doubled as places for lectures and public health drives — exactly how the Panthers used this school. Today, the school’s mascot is the panther.

At Penn Elementary, once a site for Panther-organized sickle cell anemia testing, the school’s mascot speaks to its connections to the party.Credit: Zach Mortice/Bloomberg CityLab

For Wills, marking Penn Elementary offers a way to show how the party fit into a larger story. “Black history in America will be slavery, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King, Obama — that’s it,” she says. “That skips a lot of nuances and other schools of thought.”

The Panthers represent a “gap in the American Civil Rights story,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. He calls local documentation efforts like Chicago’s “critically important to begin a long-term process of stewardship and interpretation of these historic places.” The National Trust has paid out $9.8 million to preserve 80 historic Black churches since 2018 — funds that could be instrumental in saving sites like Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.

Several of these buildings lack the grandeur or design pedigree of typical preservationist causes. Take the “three-flat” apartment building where Panther co-founder Brooks lived — a modest red-brick structure that looks like thousands of others in Chicago. Yet this building still tells a story about Black wealth creation (if you were the landlord) and Black wealth extraction (if you were a tenant). So does its setting, a West Side neighborhood full of empty lots. “More people have been in three-flats than buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Elizabeth Blasius, a preservationist that was on the state council that recommended the Panthers’ nomination. “That’s where history happens.”

The “three-flat” apartment home of chapter co-founder Billy Brooks is a rare survivor in its neighborhood.Credit: Zach Mortice/Bloomberg CityLab

Addressing what historic preservation can do to retain the cultural memory of vanished spaces is prompting a “moment of reckoning” for the field, says Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of the preservation nonprofit Landmarks Illinois. “People are tied to place whether the building is there or not.”

This disconnect between historic preservation and the Black experience of dispossession is an important element of the work of Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson. “How are you going to build commemorative institutions dedicated to history when you have no power over the space in which you live?” she says.

The pain from the initial loss of these places has been compounded by the inability to formally memorialize them, says McDonald. “Not only was that erasure a trauma to this community, but then when you’re trying to actually right the wrong and tell a story erased by somebody else, you don’t qualify for the other protections and honors that you would receive,” she says. “It’s a duplicative sense of erasure.”

To address this, Wills is establishing historical markers for demolished sites, much like those for Civil War battlefields: “These were our battle places, too,” she says.

A different process of commemoration is underway in Oakland, California, where the Black Panther Party began. There, many historical sites still exist, like its party headquarters. The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, named after the founder of the Black Panthers, wants to use the Antiquities Act, which allows federal land to become a national monument, to eventually collect party-affiliated places in Oakland and other cities to create a discontiguous Panthers-themed National Park.

“We wanted to go for the big win,” says Xavier Buck, the foundation’s executive director. “Adding to the national park system gives it legitimacy on a different scale, and it gives it legitimacy in a country that once had all these people under FBI surveillance. My hope is that every single city where there was a chapter could potentially join our national park unit and become the largest national park in the nation.”

Dr. Huey P. Newton Way Dedication
Fred Hampton Jr., center, attends the dedication of a section of 9th Street in West Oakland as “Dr. Huey P. Newton Way” in 2021.Photographer: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Past Panther commemoration efforts have faced a hostile political climate. In 2006, Chicago’s police union led the fight against a city council proposal to install an honorary “Chairman Fred Hampton Way” sign on the block where Hampton was shot. And in 2017, the Trump Administration pulled a $100,000 National Park Service grant to the University of California at Berkeley to collect Black Panther oral histories.

So far, Wills reports that Chicago has largely welcomed her landmarking project. “In the world of preservation, I don’t feel like I’ve had problems or challenges,” she says. Indeed, McDonald so valued Wills and her pursuit that she ended up hiring her onto the staff at Landmarks Illinois.

Ironically, Wills’ only points of resistance have stemmed from Fred Hampton Jr., son of the assassinated Panther leader. At a Chicago Landmarks Commission hearing in October, Hampton Jr. and a group of supporters voiced their opposition, saying that “ruling-class institutions” were attempting to “co-opt and hijack the legacy” of the party, and that he would rather see a “demolished truth” than a “structured lie.” At City Hall and in an interview with Bloomberg CityLab, he did not voice any objections to the merit of the report, but he did emphasize his unwillingness to work with Wills: “Out of love for the legacy of the Black Panther Party, we cannot align ourselves with this project,” Hampton Jr. said.

Police raid Black Panthers headquarters
Bystanders inspect the wreckage inside Black Panthers headquarters in 1969.Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

The dispute speaks to the intensity of feelings that still surround the party. “It’s hard, especially for Black people, to trust that the government is going to tell the story right,” says Buck of the Huey Newton Foundation. “Ultimately, a lot of Panthers are getting older, and they just want to make sure the legacy of the party remains permanent and can be carried over to future generations.”

In a sense, the effort to landmark the Panthers’ history seems more like a truth and reconciliation commission inscribed in the built environment than a traditional accounting of historic artifacts. Foregrounding culture in this way is a step toward what Blasius calls “de-commodifying preservation.” And while the tenor and values of the National Register are carefully couched in notions of objectivity — it’s about identifying significance, not approval or disapproval — McDonald is fairly unequivocal about the message the preservation campaign is sending. “Telling the story of the Black Panthers is acknowledging their value,” she says. “Whether a person agrees with their methods or their tactics, the underlying story is one of trying to ensure justice for everyone in this country.”

It’s also a preservationist mirror to the Panther philosophy of self-determination. “The organization is going to make sure that the true history of the Black Panther Party is told,” Hall says. “We’re not waiting for anyone to do that for us.”


About Epiphany Center for the Arts

Conceived with the vision to return Epiphany to a place for people to congregate, the shuttered, historic Church of the Epiphany has been preserved and adapted into the Epiphany Center for the Arts, an iconic cultural hub “For the Good of Art, Entertainment and Events.” Thoughtfully designed, the exemplary 42,000-square-foot campus located on the artsy edge of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood boasts three distinct venues (Epiphany Hall, The Sanctuary and The Chase House) and a stunning array of amenities. The campus also features eight galleries that serve as a platform for a diverse selection of artists from Chicago and beyond. Epiphany’s exhibitions showcase the work of women, the LGBTQIA community, artists of color, and the disability culture. Epiphany’s top priority is to curate programming that is inclusive, while providing a place established artists can collaborate with emerging ones. Epiphany’s programming serves to unite community and artists alike while “Bringing Chicago Together.” Visit to learn more.