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The sister communities of Corona and East Elmhurst are mostly residential. It’s a quiet area where people enjoy a suburban lifestyle in the Big City and families have known each other for generations. But it also has an activist past and many native sons and daughters played major roles in the social change movements of the 1960s.

Three local products — J. Yasmeen Sutton, Claudia Chesson-Williams, and Thelma “Bunny” Davis-LeGare — will discuss their experiences as members of the Black Panthers Party during a special Women’s History Month panel discussion at the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center at 100-01 Northern Blvd. on Saturday, March 31 at 1 p.m. (Other former Black Panthers will be on hand, and a Q&A session is planned.)

Organized by the Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, the three-hour event will include a poetry reading, the screening of a video on local female activists, and the sale of a photo montage of about 150 prominent locals, including Helen Marshall, a City Council member and Borough President, and Nancy Wilson, a singer who won three Grammy Awards. (Please see above photo.) Admission is free, and attendees will be served a chicken-and-fish lunch donated by MBJ Food Services.

Sutton joined the Black Panthers in 1969 and managed the group’s finances for about a year. Clearly a numbers person, she ended up as a senior accountant at the Center for Rapid Recovery, a mental health nonprofit in Hempstead, Long Island, and treasurer of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panthers. She still lives in the neighborhood.

Chesson-Williams started selling newspapers and raising funds for Black Panther breakfast programs at age 17. She stayed with the group for more than four years, operating the Harlem office at one juncture. She later worked in Columbia University’s Information Technology Department and Greenhope Services for Women, an incarceration-prevention program in East Harlem.

Davis-LeGare worked out of Black Panther offices in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. She then made a living as a professional singer. Her son, Alprentice David Emory Davis, wrote a book entitled “The Memoirs of a Black Panther Club.”

The Black Panther Party was established to protect African-Americans from police brutality in Oakland in 1966. Led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the group grew quickly and took on a Marxist revolutionary ideology, stressing Black Liberation and lashing against what it termed “American Imperialism.” By 1970, membership exceeded several thousand and the party had chapters in 48 states and several foreign countries. The movement waned in the 1980s with critics accusing some members of murder, drug dealing, and other crimes.

 

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