Why the Photographs of Kenneth P. Green Sr. Are “Turning Up!”
Empowering Teens Today By Sharing Images of 1960s Oakland
This month A Safe Place helped organized two “Turn Up” events to spread the word about healthy teen relationships. To help us, Kenneth Green Jr. really turned it up, sharing amazing photographs from 1960s Oakland, taken by his father, the celebrated photo-documentarian, Kenneth P. Green Sr. We spoke to him about his father, the photographs and why he wanted to Turn Up.
In 2007, the Oakland Tribune moved out of the Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland, and in the process, cleared out its storage. Kenneth Green Jr. got a call asking if he wanted to keep any of his father’s “stuff”. His father, Kenneth Green Sr. had been the first African American photographer for the Oakland Tribune and the “stuff” they were talking about were boxes of his photographs, an irreplaceable documentary archive of Oakland in the 1960s-80s.
“My father majored in photography at Laney College from 1965–67. Basically, as a college student, he pretty much documented the life and culture of the Bay Area, including one of the most dramatic social changes happening in Oakland from 1966 to 68, and he was able to take photographs, definitely a documentarian of the movement.”
“Very early on he documented the Black Panther Party before it really had its own logo and name. In the very early stages he had a very intimate relationship with the student body in Oakland which gave him a very intimate position to document the movement as it was happening.”
This work led to a job as the first African American staff photographer for the Oakland Tribune from 1968–1982.
“He was hired on as staff photographer — social photographer — he covered all social events — whatever story editors needed to put in the paper. My mother and myself went around with him, a lot of the time, while he was at work. To big events, galas, community — I was exposed from the perspective of him being a photo journalist.”
Kenneth Green Sr. died tragically young in 1982 and, though his son collected the boxes of photographs, he didn’t open them. In an interview by Lisa Silberstein for an exhibition of his father’s photographs at the Oakland Museum, he remembers,
“That was maybe 15 years ago. Because of it being my father’s, I just took all the pictures and I shoved it in a dark room in the garage, and I never touched again, ever. That was grief to me.”
The boxes lay untouched for years.
“The negatives of his life’s work were in the basement of my garage, for most of my life and I never quite looked at them until about 7 years ago.”
Then, one day, he discovered he couldn’t avoid his father’s legacy anymore.
“There was a particular envelope that my grandmother, who is still alive, gave me. I opened it up and I could tell there were some images of the Black Panther Party inside. Pretty significant! And that afternoon, when I got full of emotion and tears, I understood that I needed to look over my dad’s body of work. That’s what started it?”
So, I started to break out the images and I ended up working with UC Berkeley where we held our first speaker symposium in 2012. (at the Townsend Center for the Humanities) The campus was very interested in the history I brought to campus, to curate it, my first exhibit was at the Townsend Center for Humanities — that pretty much gave us the start to look at how my father started his life’s work.
The archive that now preserves that work. Kenneth see his father as a participant and member of a dynamic community mobilizing during turbulent years.
“These photographs reflect his true artistry, his ability to capture the multifaceted organic expression of the African American community in the Bay Area — unrehearsed portraits of movement leaders, interactions of families, students, and community members, and the full range of people who participated in the daily work of social change.”
The collection means a lot to Kenneth.
“It’s my whole life.”
As he started to work in it, he realized that his father’s work was intertwined with his own life.
Everything about who I am is in my dad’s collection, meaning that he also documented myself, my mother, my sister, his family and his friends. We were not excluded.
My dream would be to provide a transparent view of my father as a photo-documentarian, to share with Oakland and the world, the life and culture that truly existed, rather than the way the Black Panther Party and the people in our community have been portrayed as aggressive, angry — I would like to share all the love, the pride, the self-awareness, the empowerment of black people, to continue to distribute the core values of the black family that we’re losing.
It was Carolyn Russell, director of A Safe Place, who asked Kenneth to provide images for the “Turn Up!” events aimed at developing healthy relationships for teens. Her idea was to use the photographs to inspire today’s teens by showing them the history of the black community working together for social change. That’s why Kenneth thinks that the images are important for a new generation.
“My father’s images at “Turn Up” will show the kids their parents, their grandparents, their aunt and uncles. There was a human side back then that’s not really depicted today. There was a love and awareness that promoted the empowerment of black people. And they supported the kids.
“It was about the kids.”
“Turn Up!” is about the kids too, and A Safe Place would like to thank Kenneth Green Jr. for sharing his father’s legacy and his work with us to support healthy relationships.
If you need to learn more about “Turn Up” please contact A Safe Place for more information. A Safe Place has a mission to support victims of family violence and educate the Oakland community story to the issue of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. We want to hear from you! Talk to us on Twitter — @ A Safe Place4U