As people celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s Seattle chapter, one of their missions still thrives: The Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, which sees hundreds of patients each month. “I like that they’re personal and honest,” one patient says.
Sandra Keller has been coming to the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center for three decades.
The 58-year-old Seattle resident said she trusts the physicians and staff at the clinic, where her two children and 10 grandkids also receive care.
Her most recent appointment at the East Yesler Way clinic was for an arthritic hip that continues to cause her pain when she stands while working at a hair salon booking appointments.
50th anniversary of Seattle Black Panthers
Numerous events are planned from Thursday to Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the party’s Seattle chapter. For a full list of events, go to www.strangertickets.com. Here are some highlights:
• Opening breakfast, 9 a.m. Thursday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. Tickets are free.
• Michael Vendiola: “Coalition building from student activism to communities of color to protect Mother Earth,” 1 to 2:15 p.m. Thursday, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Free.
• Conversation with Erika Huggins, moderated by Nikkita Oliver, 10:15 to 11:30 a.m. Friday. Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave. Free.
• “Growing up Panther,” with Fred Hampton Jr., 7 to 7:45 p.m. Friday, Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave. Free.
• Panel discussion with former members of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party, 1:45 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
Note: Tickets are no longer available for the opening speech by actor Danny Glover, scheduled for Thursday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
Source: Stranger Tickets
“I like that they’re personal and honest,” she said of the clinic. “They sit and talk to you like a human being. I was going to this place when it was in a basement.”
Keller is aware of the clinic’s long history, but most people don’t know that it was started by the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party during the turbulent ’60s and is the only such clinic still operating. Although the party has long since disbanded, the clinic has symbolized the chapter’s legacy for generations of patients.
All patients are welcome and are treated regardless of their ability to pay — a steadfast mission of the clinic for nearly half a century. From infants to the elderly to the homeless, the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center helps those most vulnerable in the Seattle area.
What started as a free baby wellness clinic has become a place where generations of poor and minorities depend on primary care with health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV and drug addiction.
The center’s location has changed several times, from its start in the Black Panther Party’s Seattle headquarters in 1969, to the basement of a house, and finally in its current location on East Yesler Way.
The clinic is an often-forgotten contribution of the Black Panther Party’s Seattle chapter, said founding party member Elmer Dixon, 67, of Seattle.
“Low-income communities and all races come to that clinic to rely on services and that gives all of us pride in establishing the program,” said Dixon, a diversity consultant. “It speaks to the legacy of the Black Panther Party.”
Of the 13 health clinics the Black Panther Party started across the United States, Seattle’s is the only one still operating, said Alondra Nelson, author of “Body and Soul,” a book about the party’s health activism and its fight against medical discrimination.
“So much of the legacy you have to find, but you have, in broad daylight, their living legacy,” in Seattle, said Nelson, a Columbia University sociology professor.
Members of the Seattle Black Panther Party are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the chapter’s founding with a series of public events Thursday through Saturday, including a speech by actor Danny Glover at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
How to open a clinic
When the Seattle Black Panther Party chapter opened in 1968, two years after the party’s founding in Oakland, California, the emphasis was on ensuring the rights of blacks and fighting police brutality. Seattle was the second chapter to open in the United States, and membership surged to 300.
Members wore black jackets and berets, and carried firearms in public, which many found menacing. As the group’s visibility grew, so did law enforcement’s scrutiny, leading to multiple arrests of local Black Panther members.
Seattle police swarmed the headquarters in July 1968 and arrested Dixon’s brother, Aaron Dixon, for theft. A jury later found him not guilty.
In early 1970, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms wanted to raid the headquarters, claiming the group had stockpiled illegal weapons, according to a University of Washington history.
Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center
Address: 2101 E. Yesler Way
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday; 9 a.m. to noon Saturday; closed Sunday
Country Doctor Community Clinic: 500 19th Ave E.
After-hours clinic: 550 16th Ave.
But the mayor at the time, Wes Uhlman, refused to cooperate, saying he didn’t see the Black Panthers in Seattle as a threat.
The party’s mission broadened with an order from the national headquarters in Oakland for the chapters, including Seattle, to start a breakfast program and a free medical clinic.
“Kids needed to be able to learn and couldn’t do so on empty stomachs so we started five locations for breakfast,” Elmer Dixon said.
Dixon and most local party members were not even 21 years old, and had no idea of how to open a clinic.
With the help of activist and UW neurosurgeon Dr. John Green, about three months later they opened a clinic at the party’s headquarters at 20th Avenue and East Spruce Street.
At a UW Medical Center loading dock, Green helped the Black Panthers load a vehicle with donated medical equipment the hospital wasn’t using, like an examination table, medical cabinets and lab supplies, Dixon said.
Green, other physicians and nurses volunteered their time, seeing patients at the clinic at night.
The Black Panthers named it the Sidney Miller Free Clinic, after a party member who was shot and killed by a merchant during an attempted robbery.
Founding member Aaron Dixon, 69, Elmer’s brother, recalled that women who came to the clinic for an appointment had to pass by weapons and sandbags protecting the building from a possible police raid.
“We had a baby wellness program to support mothers who were pregnant and we provided them with prenatal care and all the vitamins they needed to have a healthy baby,” Aaron Dixon said.
The clinic also tested blacks for sickle-cell anemia.
By the fall of 1971, the national office in Oakland ordered party members to move to Oakland to build a stronger operation. A few stayed behind in Seattle, like Rosita Thomas, who handled the administrative side of the clinic.
She recalls Seattle police knocking her to the ground when she refused to let them search the inside of the clinic to look for a runaway juvenile. Thomas was arrested for assault and resisting arrest.
“At that time there were deliberate attempts to destroy everything we were doing,” Thomas said.
The charges were later dropped, she said.
Carolyn Downs was a young mother who joined the Black Panthers and dedicated all her time to the party, said Elmer Dixon.
“There was no task she wouldn’t take on,” Dixon said. “She worked in breakfast programs, sold papers on the corners, cooked for free food programs. She was also committed to the idea of this free medical clinic.”
When the clinic closed for a couple of years in the mid-1970s, Downs helped Dixon find another building and ways to expand medical care to everyone.
Before the opening of the medical center at 34th Avenue, off East Union Street, Downs was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died at 25 years old in 1978. The medical center was renamed in her honor. The Black Panther chapter closed about the same time.
In 1988, the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, serving mostly black and Hispanic patients, merged with the Country Doctor Community Clinic on Capitol Hill, which also was started by community activists and served mostly white and gay patients.
“It’s been a rich interracial marriage with these two different histories,” said Raleigh Watts, executive director of both clinics, which are operated by a nonprofit with a board of directors.
By 1994, the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center had moved to 2101 E. Yesler Way. It shares the site with the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, which opened in 1970 in honor of Brown, a black woman and community organizer.
Past the busy waiting room at Carolyn Downs are the pharmacy and 17 examination rooms.
On a recent Wednesday, doctors were seeing patients with concerns about opioid dependency, foot pain, sore throat, bipolar disorder, asthma and diabetes. They were predominantly Hispanic or black. Eight physicians and several interpreters were on site.
The medical center is also the training site for family-medicine residents at Swedish Family Medicine Residency on Cherry Hill, like Nasya Sierra.
She is one of six residents who work here.
“They don’t have the resources,” Sierra said. “A lot of patients are homeless but can’t do insulin because they don’t have a fridge.”
Twenty-two percent of the patients coming to Carolyn Downs are homeless, according to the center’s 2016 annual report. Sierra tries to work with those challenges by prescribing oral medication and monitoring their diabetes.
One of her patients, Shaka Savannah, who had a recent follow-up appointment because of severe headaches, said he was familiar with some of the history of the Carolyn Downs center.
“Her legacy is me being able to come here,” the 26-year-old said of Carolyn Downs. “I’m eternally grateful for what she did.”