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The bunker is gone but the Black Panthers' work lives on in Seattle

Elmer Dixon walked up to the spot where the Black Panthers fortified a building against police attack and remembered the scene 50 years ago.

The important thing about the sandbagged duplex on 20th Avenue in Seattle's Central District, he said, was its use as a free medical clinic.

“And so the women that came into the first clinic, which was a well-baby clinic, said they felt very safe and protected when they walk into the Panther office,” Dixon said.

Dixon was a co-founder with his brother and others of the Black Panthers' Seattle chapter, in the tense weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of April, there will be a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the chapter's beginning.

By the fall of 1969, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were regularly raiding Black Panther offices across the country. In Seattle, the Panthers moved from a storefront headquarters to a place that could be fortified.

Dixon said that the duplex on 20th Avenue doubled as the Panthers' first free medical clinic. All of the walls were sandbagged, he recalled.

Former Panther Vanetta Molson lived at the bunker: “Sand was everywhere, so you did what you could to keep it down."

The house was communal and so was the work. Molson sold newspapers and sought donations for the free breakfast program that the Panthers started nearby. But the threat of violence was often present —  and at times, Molson was afraid.

“Whenever there was talk of conflict," she said. "At any time they could come and bust in, or try to."

Whenever there was potential trouble, word would go out on the phone tree. Panther allies would show up and surround the duplex to interfere with law enforcement.

“It could get very serious," Molson said. "There was tension there."

Today the sandbags are gone, and a mural commemorating the Panther movement is the only piece of the bunker that remains. The structure was razed after the Panthers left for new offices a block away in 1972. After the move, the Panthers focused more on programs to fill unmet needs in the community.

In the later medical clinic, volunteer doctors screened kids for a disease that at the time that few were aware of: sickle cell anemia. The genetic disease is more common in people of African descent.

Elmer Dixon said the Panthers knew that.

"The efforts of the Black Panther Party gave rise to the awareness of sickle cell on a broad level across the country,” Dixon said.

The Panthers also held legal classes and ran food programs, like free breakfasts for kids. Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church, near the Panther office and clinic, was the site of the first free breakfast program. But within a few years, hundreds of children were getting free breakfast from the Panthers at five locations around Seattle. 

“They always got scrambled eggs," Dixon said. "They got pancakes, they got grits, they got doughnuts as a snack to take with them out the door. And all of this food was donated."

Dixon says the Panthers relied on community support to get the donations they needed to run their food and medical programs. Safeway once balked at donating food for the free breakfast program, and the Panthers and their supporters shut two stores down. (See the slideshow above for a copy of the letter Panthers sent.)

“One was on 23rd right off of Union," Dixon said. "The other one is on 2013 Jackson. And the kids from the summer Liberation School actually picketed them, and people wouldn't cross the kids' picket line, and both safe Safeways went out of business." 

By the late 1970s, a philosophical split among national Panther leadership began to fray the party and membership dwindled.

The Seattle chapter was one of the last to disband around 1980, but its legacy endures. The medical clinic started by the Panthers is still operating in the Central District as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.