- Conversing with Gwen Robinson
Gwen Robinson, a former member of the Detroit branch of the Black Panther Party, graciously agreed to talk with me about her time as a member of the Black Panther Party. A former entrepreneur and mother of three, Robinson, now 63, recalls her days as a Panther with the fondest of memories. “Those years were some of the best years of my life,” says Robinson. What follows is a truncated version of that conversation.
Let’s start at the end. What was your last year as a member of the Detroit branch of the Black Panther Party?
What were the circumstances under which you decided your time had come to an end?
By this time I had my second child. . . so I decided I needed to focus on my children. I remember coming to this conclusion definitively, however, after attending one of our general body meetings over at 157 Collingwood. I had given it some thought before, but hadn’t decided on anything. So, I’m at this meeting and I remember looking around and seeing all of these new faces. . . new members were coming in the branch so quickly. There was something about that meeting that by the time the meeting was over; I knew it was time for me to move on. They were doing these strange chants. . . it was just weird. Nothing bad happened or anything like that, but I knew it was time for me to go. . . that was in the fall of 1973.
How is that you didn’t know these people?
Well, after having my second child, I took some time to recuperate so I wasn’t in the office a lot. I would say that I was probably away for about a month. I’d come in every now and again, but I didn’t function as a full-time party member. . . . so a lot of people who came in I didn’t know and they didn’t know me. [End Page 137]
How did you leave the party? In other words, was there any drama associated with leaving?
No drama at all, I just left. . . . I didn’t make any announcement or clear it with the leadership. . . that wasn’t required in Detroit. . . . I just left and didn’t come back. I was still in touch with some of the comrades and also don’t forget my husband, whom I had married in 1972, who was the branch’s circulation manager, was still there, so I was still connected in a way.
You’re a native of Detroit, correct?
Yes I am.
Tell me a little bit about your background? How did you grow up?
Ok, I grew up on the eastside of Detroit. I am the oldest of four girls. Both my parents worked. My father worked for the Budd Company, a major supplier of parts for the automotive industry. He worked there for many years. . . . he retired from there in fact. My mother worked for the state of Michigan for many years as a caseworker. I guess you could say that my family was middle class. My mother was always exposing us to the arts and various cultural activities. For example, I took modern dance and one of my sisters took piano lessons. I was always going to museums, places like that.
Were either of your parents political in any way?
No, not really, although I know they were concerned about Black folk’s well-being. My mother even participated in a march led by Dr. King when he came to Detroit in the early 1960s.
Tell me a little more about your parents?
Well, my dad is no longer living. . . . he was from Alabama. . . . he was a World War II veteran. He served in the Army. My mother is from Detroit. . . . she is still living. She retired in 1997 after working for the state of Michigan for twenty-five years.
What did your folks say when you joined the Black Panther Party?
My father didn’t say much. My father...