The Black Panthers at the de Young Museum, 1968–1969

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 celebrates art made by Black artists during two pivotal decades when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse. The de Young’s presentation of this acclaimed exhibition includes a focus on Bay Area artists whose work promoted personal and cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment, and political and social activism. Here, assistant curator of American art, Lauren Palmor, surfaces details about a historic exhibition that took place at the de Young in 1968–1969.

Pirkle Jones, “Untitled” (Crowds viewing “The Black Panthers: A Photographic Essay” show at the de Young), from the series “The Black Panthers,” 1969. © Regents of the University of California
Pirkle Jones, “Untitled” (Crowds viewing “The Black Panthers: A Photographic Essay” show at the de Young), from the series “The Black Panthers,” 1969. © Regents of the University of California

In the winter of 1968–1969, the landmark exhibition A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers drew 100,000 visitors to the de Young museum. Featuring photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, the exhibition is remembered as one of the most popular—and controversial—in the museum’s history.

Baruch had initially approached de Young museum director Jack McGregor with her desire to photograph the Black Panther Party and “to present the feeling of the people.” After connecting directly with Kathleen Cleaver, communications secretary of the Black Panthers, Baruch and Jones were permitted to photograph events, lectures, meetings, and daily activities throughout the summer of 1968.

After viewing a few early images, McGregor scheduled an exhibition of Baruch and Jones’s photographs to open before the end of the year on December 7, 1968. In spite of controversy and protest, the show attracted record crowds. Following its success in San Francisco, the exhibition then traveled to New York, where it was presented as the first photography exhibition at the recently opened Studio Museum in Harlem (est. 1968).

Below is a slideshow of photographs by Baruch and Jones that appeared in the 1968–1969 de Young exhibition, which are on view at the de Young once again, fifty years later, in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Are of Black Power 1963–1983.

Text by Lauren Palmor, assistant curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.