The Panther and the Bulldog: The Visual and Material Culture of Solidarity in New Haven, Connecticut

The Radical Sixties, Aesthetics, Politics and Histories of Solidarity, University of Brighton · June 2019 ·

In a small historic New England city, filled with public art, monuments and memorials of every kind and the home of an elite academic institution, Yale University, one important story has been left out of the public memory-making process: that of the role of the Black Panther Party in New Haven and the events surrounding the May Day trials in 1970. As a city with both a self-defined history dating to April 25, 1638 and a long practice of writing this history and making it available in text, image and monument, the omission of the Black Panther Party in public space in New Haven is glaring. The story of the trial has been told in several publications, including Agony in New Haven, the Trial of Bobby Seal, Erika Huggins, and the Black Panther Party (1973) and Murder in the Model City, The Black Panthers, Yale and the Redemption of a Killer (2006).  Yet there is no historic marker, no permanent exhibit, no public art installation to remind residents and visitors of these years. However, there are examples of visual and material culture—such as the shirt seen in the image and posters, photographs, ephemera, letters, etc.—existing in collections around the city, with varying levels of access. This paper asks how this printed shirt came about: who created it, who wore it and when, and how it became part of the archives at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, but forgotten by the public at large. What does visual and material culture say about the idea of solidarity in a city known for its deep-seated and long-standing tradition of “town versus gown” identity and often social disunion?  How did the idea of solidarity play out in such a place, and what were its ramifications for both black and white students and city residents?