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Black Against Black: The Agony of Panthermania

Down on Chapel Street in New Haven they would give him a stack of Panther newspapers and he would come back to Hamden to sell them. William said he would probably be shot. If not by a cop, by a neighbor. Hamden's black neighborhood is red-shingle suburban, two-family lawns, little girls with old faces and parts between their braids and young dudes in kelly green trousers. Hamden is alarm clocks going off at five in the morning. Parents who rise to those alarms, for jobs in the Winchester gun factory or the Hostess cupcake plant, do not take kindly to a teenage native son out late peddling revolution.

Junius stood the streetcorner test until midnight. He was scared and cold. He sold one paperóto his father. At midnight Junius headed downtown to Number Nine, the storefront drug-rehab center loosely run by school dropouts in the absence of any other mental health outlet for New Haveners under sixteen. Kids drop by there not so much to rap about dope as to talk out the knots in their minds. But they were mostly middle-class white kids, Junius discovered. So again he felt alone and went home.

The next day a friend asked Junius if he was in. No, Junius said, he was not in. Membership in the Black Panther Party was closed, frozen, to protect against police infiltration and power-hungry black political rivals. It was frozen nationally, he found out, when John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were killed at UCLA in January of 1969.

That was over a year ago, Junius told his friend last winter.

". . . It was all there waiting for John and Ericka. Action in the Panthers and a ready-made feud with the Black Nationalists . . ."

John Huggins came out of the white-pocketbook-Negro tradition which goes way back in New England. He never saw a real ghetto before his twentieth birthday. Around New Haven he was known as the prodigal son of one of the oldest-line haute black bourgeois families. His grammar school was private (Hopkins, the same school attended by the judge and defense attorney in the New Haven Panther trial). His home, a composed brick five-bedroom Colonial, was the envy of his few black friends. Mostly it drew white children, his classmates, to the acre of play yard spread around it and waiting just up the street from Hill House High School.

John's room bulged with 300 books. His mother worked at Yale's Sterling Library. Everyone respected his father, a formidable patriarch with finely groomed parlor-car hair, because he followed the traditional housefolk route to success in New Haven. John Huggins Sr. manages the Fence Club. Indeed, the exclusivity of this Yale social society has been 40 years under his iron guardianship. The name is hammered deep into the brass nameplate outside its ivy-whiskered door: John Huggins, Permitteeóreminiscent of a more exclusive heyday which Mr. Huggins mourns. But Yale masters and students of untarnished Anglo-Saxon heritage still gather at the Fence to drink and dine in the heavy oak Great Hall manner of medieval English kings.

Respect for patina rubbed off on John Huggins Sr. He passed it on to his children. Reserved, temperate, academically inclined, the Hugginses were always considered white-pocketbook perfect.

John lulled through Saturdays reading and tinkering with a tape recorder. He hiked with the Boy Scouts and spun the fantasies of a white prince.

One of John's friends, who came up the hard way through welfare and the projects and today attends Yale Medical School, remembers his childhood picture of the Hugginses: "They were a together black family living decent up on Munson Street." John Huggins taught his friend to daydream white.

"We'd hike about fifteen miles out to Sleeping Giant Park," his friend recalls. "There's an old castle on top of the mountain and this was our domain. Every Saturday we'd pack a lunch and climb the mountain to eat in the castle. We pretended we were knights in shining armor and the castle was in sixteenth-century England. The other Boy Scouts we took along were our court."

Sundays, John would stroll with his parents down Dixwell to the white-pocketbook Congregational Church. John Huggins apparently wanted for nothing. Except a car. If he had a car, he could roll out of New Haven and see what the world was about.

"I'm thinking of heading out to California, to UCLA," came the call to his father from Lincoln University where John was a restless freshman. "I got to do something for my people."

"They're not your people!" The father's voice thickened then, as it does today, with scorn for what he calls the Negro downtrodden. "I know a lot of them, laying about with their hands out, and they're no damn good." New Haven was where John belonged, the father insisted, where his powerful white friends would bend over backwards to pass out opportunities.


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