- Visiting with Leon “Valentine” Hobbs, III
Recently I had the opportunity to talk extensively with former Black Panther Leon Valentine Hobbs, III, about his life in the party. The first of two conversations occurred in late April on the front porch of his home in Washington, DC, where he has resided since leaving the party in the summer of 1974. On a clear spring afternoon, Hobbs took the time to sit down with me and reflect on the work he carried out as a party member in both Seattle and Oakland, California.
A follow-up conversation, which lasted nearly two hours, took place in early May via telephone. Now, 67, and retired since 2014 from a long career in public safety, Hobbs is what one would consider one of the party’s unsung members; whose name may not be known outside of Panther circles, but whose devotion and contributions to the organization were indispensable to the party’s success.
Hobbs’s story is not entirely unlike those of other male party members. His dedication to the party and his commitment to the liberation of Black people have often gone unnoticed and/or underappreciated by those who have purportedly accepted the important task of documenting Black Panther Party history for a broader audience. Originally from Staten Island, New York, Hobbs, the oldest of three boys and a product of a two-parent household, joined the Black Panther Party in Seattle, Washington, two years after he was discharged from the United States Army. Below is the transcript of our discussion.
Why did you decide to get involved in the struggle for Black liberation?
I had seen and experienced racism first-hand—from being told I could not swim in a swimming pool because I was Black, to being subjected to the racist ways of White kids at my high school, to the racism that permeated the military, resulting in me being thrown in the stockade for 56 days for defending myself against racist Whites, and so forth. [End Page 147]
What did your parents have to say about you dropping out of high school?
They weren’t happy about it, but they had to accept it.
What prompted you to enlist the military?
I wanted to get away from home. . . . I needed to get out of Staten Island. . . . it was time for me to go.
Did you talk it over with your parents before making that decision?
No. . . I just showed up with the papers. . . . you know, because I was 17, I had to get their permission. . . . they had to sign those papers. At first my father didn’t think I was ready. . . . I remember him saying, “Son I’m not sure if you’re ready for the military. I don’t think you know what the military is all about.” In the end, my dad signed the papers. He said to my mother “that the military might be good for him. . . at least we’ll know where he is”. . . . so my mother begrudgingly signed the papers.
In what branch did you enlist?
Why the Army? I never thought about the other branches.
I had a lot of relatives who had been in the Army. . . so I figured I’d join the Army.
Where’d you do your basic?
Fort Gordon, Augusta, Ga. It was so racist down there they wouldn’t even let us leave the base. . . . that’s how bad it was.
Where were you stationed?
Originally Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC, then Fort Dix, NJ.
In what year did you enlist?
Let’s see now. . . . I left high school in the spring of 1966 and enlisted in the Army that June at age 17.
Stemming from your earlier comments, is it fair to say that you experienced a lot of racism in the Army?
Yeah, but even before the military, I was encountering racism a lot in high school. I was getting into fights when White boys called me a nigger and all that stuff. Things got so bad at...