A 1970 flier advertising the Black Panthers' free breakfast program in Washington D.C. (Washington Area Spark/Flickr)

Half a century on, some of the most enduring images of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s political practice remain photographs of the organization’s Free Breakfast Program. 

Less well known is that a South Philly-raised woman, Regina Jennings, was an integral member of the party’s East Oakland chapter — the chapter which first fed neighborhood kids before heading into school.

Jennings will talk about her experiences at “Free Breakfast at the Free Library,” a sold-out Thursday evening event at the Parkway Central Library, where Philadelphians who managed to snag one of the no-cost reservations will gather to hear that and other stories of the Black Panthers’ pathbreaking public service project. 

The breakfast-for-dinner talk, where Jennings will be joined by fellow Panther member Ethel Paris in a conversation moderated by Christopher Rogers of Friends of the Tanner House, aims to “build community by teaching through food and teaching about food.” 

That’s the mission of the library’s Culinary Literacy Center, according to Abigail Weil, an instruction librarian with the CLC who received a civic engagement grant from the Thomas Harrison Skelton Foundation to put the program together. 

There’s lots to discuss about the Panthers’ free breakfast initiative, which had a wide-ranging impact. One of just a few mandatory actions for each chapter, in its first few years the program fed thousands of poor children (and others) on a weekly basis. 

The program’s popularity — and its role in earning the Panthers the respect of many moderate Black folks and even some white liberals —is considered the final straw that moved then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to dub the group “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” 

That was no idle label, per Jennings. Under the aegis of Hoover, local police began destroying some of the food gathered to feed people, “or they would threaten the neighborhood grocery stores,” she told Billy Penn.

Jennings looks forward to sharing first-hand accounts of this and other scenes she said often seem relegated to history books — books that don’t get the impact of those actions right. “Black people have to tell their own story,” she said. “We cannot wait for this country to tell the real truth, they won’t do it.”

‘I didn’t know what those brothers were saying, but I knew it was tough’ 

Coming up in a Point Breeze rowhouse off 19th and Annin streets, there were a range of events that would come to figure into Jennings’ political outlook. A significant piece of the puzzle was her hatred of being called a “Negro.” She couldn’t stand Negro History Week, in part because of how white classmates mocked the idea of it.

“At that time, we were ‘the Negro people,’ and ‘Negro’ always felt nasty, dirty, inferior, and sub[human] to me,” said Jennings, now a professor of literature. “I couldn’t articulate it, but that’s how I felt.”

As is often the case for Panther members, the regularity of police violence and corruption also played a role. “My grandmother was a numbers runner, and she paid off the cops,” Jennings recounted. “But they would still…when they wanted to have some fun, they’d come and knock on our door and, you know, run all through Miss Grace’s house.”

Another memory was of multiple families on her block driving down to Atlantic City in the summertime, returning with big baskets of crabs in tow. “Everybody would cook their crab, and then we would come out on the steps and eat them — even those who were drunks, or whatever, we fed them.”

Jennings started becoming politicized watching interviews of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.   

“I didn’t know what those brothers were saying, but I knew it was tough, I saw they had guns,” Jennings said. “What I did understand is they said that ‘we have a right to self defense and we have got to stop the police from beating us in our own community.’”

It started to click, and, having already run away from home a few years earlier, she decided to fly out to Oakland in 1968. 

Jennings’ account of her experience as a Panther details some of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, along with the many duties she took on as part of the group, including on Jan. 20, 1969 at Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church — the day of the first Free Breakfast Program

‘Nutrition means cooking for someone you love’

Similar to the Panther party members gathered in that basement at Saint Augustine’s, none of the staff at the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center are certified nutritionists. They partner with other institutions, such as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and create programming that fosters a sense of togetherness through culinary education.

“Each of us…have some connection to food, whether it’s because we spent time in the restaurant industry or, like me, as food writers,” said Weil, the CLC librarian. “We view nutrition holistically: Nutrition also means cooking for someone you love.” 

From English language learning program Edible Alphabet to cookbook author talks and more, the CLC explores foodways to connect Philadelphians to the city and world they inhabit. 

“I think Philly is a great food city because Philly is a diverse city,” Weil said. “There’s all these points of access that make not only incredible opportunities for eaters, but incredible opportunities for restaurateurs, or people who want to feed.”

Introducing young people to the culinary arts is a critical CLC goal, along with preserving history. Black Philadelphians played an outsized role in creating the modern catering industry, and Thursday evening’s event will feature a meal catered by Victoria’s Kitchen.

It’ll be served after Jennings and Paris share their stories of working with the Panthers. 

The federal government’s repression contributed to the party’s decline and ultimate end in 1982, but their work has left many legacies, from school meals to prison systems.

The federal School Breakfast Program — which in 1969 was just a pilot program — was expanded nationally and made permanent in 1975, “after individual states and the federal government felt the political pressure through the success” of the Panther’s program, per academic recountings and numerous accounts of the era.

While plenty of Panther party initiatives were strictly for Black communities, the food security efforts were more ecumenical — perhaps fitting for an operation started in a Episcopal church basement.  

“It shined a spotlight on the poverty in this country that, of course, affects children the most,” said Jennings. “We fed white kids, we fed parents. Anybody who showed up at the breakfast we fed.”

Her biggest takeaway from the program is akin to the CLC’s holistic idea of nutrition.

“It gave me a sense of the possibility of what can be accomplished, what I could do as an individual, to help my people,” Jennings said. “And it gave me a tremendous love for our people — a tremendous love that I had never had before.”

Updated Jan. 22

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...