They call Ruth Villa the mother of the Black Panther Party. She was there from the beginning, helping with the party's free breakfast programs and giving out shoes to poor children. She was a steadfast supporter of Panther co-founder Huey Newton to the bitter end.
Now 106, Villa has a perspective on Oakland history that spans farther back than just about anyone.
It's one thing to read about Villa's background and exploits in newspaper articles. It's another to hear her tell her story as the youngest of 14 children whose family migrated from Louisiana to Oakland, where she would go on to become a key player in the Black Panther movement in Oakland -- in her own voice.
Thanks to a national nonprofit initiative called the StoryCorps Griot Project, Villa's story will be available to future generations in an audio recording long after she is gone.
StoryCorps Griot was a one-year project that recorded stories of the lives of black Americans around the country. Mobile recording crews traveled to cities with significant black populations: Atlanta, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Clarksdale, Miss., Memphis, Selma and Montgomery. It was part of a larger project that is encouraging Americans to record and preserve their stories for posterity.
The idea is to promote cultural understanding and create an archive for future generations. Each interview is maintained at the Library of Congress, and selections are broadcast on NPR.
Villa's interview is part of a fascinating collection of oral histories of African-American residents on exhibit at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in the Fruitvale district through February 2014.
Peralta Hacienda executive director Holly Alonso collaborated with StoryCorps Griot, the African American Museum and Library as well as artist and landscape architect Walter Hood to create a local exhibit using the StoryCorps interviews.
"What I hear I Keep: Stories from Oakland's Griots" tells the stories of African-American families, many of whom migrated to the East Bay out of the segregated South in search of a better life.
Griots in West African culture were storytellers who passed down the history of the community from one generation to the next. Elders in many cultures fulfilled this vital role of reminding successive generations where they came from and of the struggles that their ancestors had overcome in order for them to be where they are now.
But as elders have passed away, many of those voices have been lost.
StoryCorps, Hood says, is an effort to revitalize interest in preserving those stories. Hood created a massive sculpture of a horse to accompany the audio interviews at the Peralta Hacienda exhibit. The horse, he says, is symbolic of people being on the move. Across race and class lines, horses were once the main mode of transport.
The sculpture towers over a room in the 1870 Victorian House that houses the exhibits. Visitors come in and sit or stand beneath it to listen to the three hours of audio interviews.
Some interviewees you may have heard of, such as Sharon Jones, the first African-American female executive for the Oakland A's who famously outed Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott in The New York Times for saying on a conference call with other owners that she would "rather have a trained monkey" working for her than an African-American. Only she used the n-word.
But most are ordinary black Oaklanders talking very matter-of-factly about their lives, which is what gives the exhibit its power. "The thing that comes across is how much people love Oakland and are committed to making Oakland better," Alonso said. "If that could just be harnessed and tapped into."
Peralta Hacienda Historical Park is tucked away deep in the Fruitvale district. It is so hidden, unfortunately, that many people don't know that this rich repository of Oakland and greater East Bay history exists.
The park receives only $45,000 in support from the city of Oakland -- funds that could be on the chopping block in this budget cycle. If you ask me, that's a paltry amount to invest in such an important resource not only for Fruitvale but also for the larger community.
On Saturday, Peralta Hacienda will hold a Juneteenth Celebration beginning at 2 p.m. and will also celebrate the opening of a new amphitheater and creek trail, 2465 34th Ave.