Elmer Dixon grew up in Seattle’s Central District. While attending Garfield High School, Elmer and his older brother, Aaron Dixon, organized Garfield’s Black Student Union in 1968. In the same year, Elmer and Aaron founded the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Elmer has served as the field lieutenant, breakfast program coordinator, and Seattle Chapter leader. Transitioning from a fearless freedom fighter and community organizer, Elmer now works as a principal owner of a leading diversity consulting firm as well as a community leader who continues to strive for human rights, inclusion, and empowerment.
I have been assisting Elmer with his memoir, conducting in-depth interviews with him and close family, friends, and fellow Panther leaders and conducting archival and internet research. A few months before beginning work with Elmer, I moved to the Central District. Though I had grown up on the Eastside, the CD is likely the Seattle neighborhood I frequented most as a child; these visits were part of the efforts my immigrant parents made to surround my siblings and me with a community that resembled us. Such representation was otherwise rare in my childhood, particularly in my suburban neighborhood.
The first time I moved to the CD, the summer after graduating college, it was a decision saturated in privilege, by virtue of being a decision in the first place. I will always be learning about my class privilege through listening to others who have taught me to recognize it, describe it, push against it.
Yet, to live in a neighborhood with people who resemble me—to not experience the loneliness I had as a child growing up in White spaces—this allows me to live in a space where I feel safe and affirmed, and has allowed me to find community. This is especially true when considering the foreignness of being other in an increasingly White, increasingly wealthy Seattle. The imaginary of being able to move freely within a Black whole is hard to let go. Maybe it shouldn’t be let go.
In beginning to have a productive and honest discussion about racial and economic injustice, we have to start from the beginnings. To acknowledge our histories is to understand the external circumstances that contextualize our persons, communities, and spaces.
I cannot understand my own history and how I fit into the Central District as a first-generation Black American without understanding the intersections of colonialism and the global care chains that have led to my own existence. Elmer does similar work in his memoir of contextualizing his journey as a community organizer and activist through the sociospatial contexts that surround his work, environment, and community.
This approach also asks us to consider how forces of disinvestment and discriminatory housing practices such as redlining have resulted in the CD as a Black cultural enclave, and how that history has played into the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification.
Researching and documenting Elmer’s history, as well as the histories of Seattle’s Black Panther Party and the Central District, has gifted me the experience of working with a compelling and evocative storyteller and has added another dimension to my reverence for this neighborhood and all the organizers of color who have put so much care and labor into this space. (ANISA JACKSON)
There were three Panther headquarters in Seattle. We were consistently the target of police raids and racist hate crimes, and the party’s needs were ever-evolving as one office was shut down and another opened. But even before the initial storefront office, there was a spot where we met when we first organized. It wasn’t officially a Panther office, but it was on the corner of what is known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way—which back then was called Empire, Empire & Madison. It was above a cleaners; I think that building is still there. We used to meet there when we were working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Most of us who started the party were former SNCC members.
Central Headquarters required all Panther offices to have a storefront, so that we would have access to the community. In the summer of 1968, we opened our first office on 34th & Union. Then, Madrona was still enveloped in what was the Black community in Seattle, the Central District. It was a good spot, the storefront. In the early days, we had three to four hundred members, as I’m sure many chapters did at that time. People were signing up to become Panthers daily and the ranks grew.
There’s part of me that’s attached to those early days. It was fresh and exciting, we were getting our footing and were understanding our commitment to the party. We quickly realized that most of those members that were signing up were caught up in the movement. They wanted to stand up for everything that the party stood for, but they didn’t understand the commitment and discipline it took to become a member of the party. So within the first six months, most of those three to four hundred Panthers were gone; they either left or were expelled from the party.
Though the storefronts were a requirement from Central Headquarters, we later found that they were also prime targets for cops and racists to attack our offices. Central Headquarters in Oakland, a storefront office, was shot up. While our office was not shot up, we were invaded by cops on multiple occasions. On one such occasion, my brother Aaron was arrested along with the then deputy chairman of the chapter, Curtis Harris. By ’69, our offices were being targeted for attack across the country, and Seattle was one chapter that was designated to be eliminated. By the fall of 1969, we closed that office and immediately moved to our second headquarters.
The new building was an above-and-below duplex that sat right on the corner of 20th & Spruce. We were situated in one of the oldest parts of the Central District, the heart of what we would call the lumpenproletariat—the people who led the bottom rung. We were positioned effectively. The Odessa Brown Clinic hadn’t been built yet, but in that spot was one of the first Black-owned grocery stores in the CD, Black Front. Garfield High School, where Aaron and I had gone, was only a few blocks away. It was in a strategic location.
By the time we moved into our second office, it had sunk in how real this all was. We had always been armed, but now we were ordered into an office that could accommodate having a barracks. We were heavily fortified and now needed to be cognizant of our every movement in order to defend ourselves.
We were a tight-knit group of Panthers, and therefore were achieving important milestones for our chapter. We started the free medical clinic, were running five breakfast programs and the busing to prisons program (where people from the community could visit their family members and loved ones who were incarcerated), and were working to establish the free food bank. I have an affinity for that era of the party and that building. We were doing a lot of community organizing with that small core group; we also had extensive support groups that we worked with. It was a time of a lot of organizing and community service, yet at the same time we had to maintain our military operations for defense mechanisms.
We had occupied both units of the duplex, and had cut a hole in the floor and ceiling separating the units to construct a trapdoor. When under attack, we could open the trapdoor and get into the front office and pass weapons down. The trapdoor gave us the ability to control the whole building. With the modifications we made to the building, the owner was trying to evict us for a number of months. There was no way that they were going to evict us—we controlled the territory.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were attacking our offices across the country. They had come to town to attack us in that building. They were rebuked by the mayor of Seattle, who didn’t give them the backup they requested to launch an assault on our office.
There had been a popular newsman by the name of Don McGaffin who had tipped us off that the raid was coming. This was one of several other attempts on the part of the police to launch a raid, but because we had such a sophisticated system, they were never successful. If they had attacked us, it would’ve been a bloody scene. We were well armed and well organized.
As part of our defensive system, we had a phone bank. We would call people in our address book who would in turn call at least 10 people, who would all call at least 10 more people. Within 20 minutes or so the front office would start filling up with people. There would be as many as two to three hundred people between the office and the police.
Before the police could attack, they would have to clear the area, and by that time we were well fortified in the building and ready to attack. We even had people who were outside of the police perimeter. We were covered on all fronts. We were fortified and organized enough to where we could defy the power structure. We were never conquered and left on our own terms. Moments like those carry the essence of my memories of that office and the party during that era.
When my comrades finally moved out of our second headquarters, I was in prison. The order had already been given for all chapters across the country to move to Oakland; it was called “building the base of operations.”
We were preparing to run Bobby Seale for mayor of Oakland and Elaine Brown for city councilwoman. The move to Oakland was a tactic that Huey Newton had taken from Chairman Mao, who had consolidated his revolutionaries into a single area of China to build a base of operations from which to launch their revolution, so Huey had taken a chapter from that struggle. Because we were ordered to Oakland in the fall of 1971, that’s when my comrades evacuated and moved to Oakland.
Upon evacuation, the building was immediately torn down. The police did not want our headquarters to stand as a symbol of our defiance. Especially since they were never able to successfully organize an attack on our offices. Though the building was torn down, a piece of the People’s Wall, a mural that surrounded the headquarters, remains. It has been refurbished and is in the process of being designated as a historical landmark.
The year I was in prison was volatile. George Jackson was murdered in prison at San Quentin and two weeks later the Attica Prison Riot occurred. Bobby Seale was released from prison, and I hadn’t seen him since he was imprisoned in ’68. I was still in this mentality that we were in a protracted war and that we needed to defend ourselves. When I was released in ’72, though weapons were still behind the scenes, we were no longer in fortified barracks and the new office on 19th & Spruce was operating.
Returning to Seattle and the new Panther office was like stepping into a different time zone because there were no longer sandbags on the walls, there were no 24-hour guards, and there were no weapons ready on the walls with 10,000 rounds of ammunition for each weapon. The militarized operation of the party, for the most part, had ceased to exist.
My comrades from the headquarters on 20th had been transferred to Oakland, and I was no longer among the group that I had been in combat situations with, who I knew were battle-tested, proven-to-the-death Panthers. The move to Oakland had left behind a skeleton of community organizers. I had to learn that this was a whole new era for the party.
The third and final headquarters for the party was actually our longest-running office. It was the site of the new medical clinic and was maintained until 1982, even though we broke away from the national chapter in 1976. Though we continued on for another six years, locally we were still associated with the Black Panther Party and continued to provide many resources to the community.
The building still stands on 19th & Spring across the street from the People’s Wall.
The Ghosts of Seattle Past anthology is published by Chin Music Press.