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The Consequences of Panthermania

"Ericka Huggins? Let's put it this way," said a white attorney. "If you invite Ericka to a party she'll bring the boards and you supply the nails. A born martyr."

An appreciative black Yalie, though highly skeptical of the Panthers, looked at Ericka differently. "We've had Erickas all our life. If it weren't for the toughness of black women, black men would all be like buffaloes. Extinct."

Early February, 1969. Showdown between Ericka and the Hugginses. The elderly couple wanted Ericka to do right by John's baby, their granddaughter—a tiny precious chip off their son and only three weeks old. Her name was Mai.

"We've got plenty of room for you and the baby. You won't even have to buy food."

Ericka insisted on her own place.

Then why didn't she leave New Haven, forget the Panthers and raise John's baby safe!

The Hugginses baptized Mai but lost the showdown. Baby and mother vanished into downtown New Haven.

Ericka Huggins and Warren Kimbro? Their names were linked through the rumor pump, though the connection was unclear. An affair? The rumor pump ran it through again: It's Ericka's way of pulling men into the Black Panthers. First she seduces them, then she ridicules them.

In this form the rumor reached Betty Kimbro Osborne, Warren's older sister. At the same time Ericka Huggins tried to contact Betty Osborne. A clash between the two women was inevitable.

Ericka was taller than John. Of all her imposing characteristics, Ericka's tallness was paramount. Rising five feet, eleven inches, slender and firm, energetically 22, she strode around town in a denim work suit, legs cutting along like flashing scissors—and very soon unmistakable.

This is Ericka Huggins, Connecticut Panther, Party Minister of Political Education, is how she announced herself. Not always fiercely, sometimes with the disarming breathlessness of a little girl. She had a little-girl face. When the occasion called for softness, Ericka's face melted into caramel smiles and she could preside over meetings with the composure of a Rose Bowl queen.

New Haven had never seen anything like her. People wanted to mourn for John Huggins' brave widow. Ericka Huggins wanted to wake them up.

Betty Kimbro Osborne is no less beautiful or direct than Ericka, but older. Forty. Tense. A feet-on-the-ground realist. She is in the black middle as a Yale faculty wife and not about to apologize for it. From a family of eight, with all her sisters living unremarkably in Ansonia, Derby, New Haven and one brother on the Miami police force, Betty alone married up.

Ernest Osborne, her husband, is director of community affairs for Yale. Name any project working between New Haven's town and gown segments and Ernest Osborne's name is on it. Though probably in fine print. Modest and principled, reflective behind his horn rims, Ernest Osborne has the quiet man's touch. His name is respected in all circles. In fact, Ernest Osborne is one of the best hopes New Haven has in the wings for a black mayor. Or was.

Ericka avoided confronting Mrs. Osborne on her own turf. Too alien. Together Betty and Ernie Osborne answer the door of their Olde Connecticut Colonial in matching dashikis, designed by Betty. It's a mixed block with black children and white fuzz and backyard barbecues. Somehow the Osbornes and their two high-spirited teenage children are more New York. (Ernie went to Benjamin Franklin High School and attended Long Island University.)

The house is heavy on imports from East 57th Street in Manhattan: Design Research pillows and Mexican prints and Scandinavian serving bowls, all culled from conference trips. Form is important to Betty Osborne. But so are people. She has worked seven years for New Haven's Redevelopment Agency. (What the Panthers would call "a housefolk gig.") She also belongs to Black Women for Progress.

One would not like to be the enemy of either of these women. Betty Osborne combines the high carriage of an Essence model and the tenacity of a Jewish mother. Ericka Huggins is taller and has nothing left to lose.

Ericka finally confronted Betty by phone. "I hear you and Black Women for Progress want to whip my ass and run me out of town," she said.

"Who gave you that piece of information?"

"Never mind who. Your organization doesn't want people coming in from out of town and breaking up other people's homes, right? The fact is I'm here to help people."

"If you won't give me your sources, don't call me up with that dumb ----," said Betty Kimbro Osborne. "In the first place, I think you should leave town and raise your daughter. In the second place, when and if I get ready to go after your ass I won't need any women's group to do it."


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