Lynn French '63: Former Black Panther and DC Homelessness Czar on building strong communities

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Lynn French '63: Former Black Panther and DC Homelessness Czar on building strong communities
Danny Stock

Lynn French ’63 remembers GDS Head of School Aggie O’Neil walking into her third grade classroom to announce a landmark Supreme Court decision that hit particularly close to home for Lynn’s family of trailblazing educators and civil rights stalwarts.

“Today, the Supreme Court realized what we’ve known all along was right,” Lynn remembers Aggie saying that afternoon of May 17, 1954, as she told the class how the nation’s highest court had just ordered the desegregation of public schools in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Aggie explained that GDS understood the virtues of educating students of different races and religions together, which is why it was the first integrated school in DC when it opened its doors nine years before the historic Supreme Court decision.

“I’ll never forget that day,” said Lynn, who has devoted her adult life to the values that GDS and her family instilled in her from an early age. For six decades, she’s worked as a civil rights advocate, a lawyer, and a public servant dedicated to lifting marginalized people.

Lynn French in first grade at GDS's Grasslands campus

Lynn French in first grade at GDS's Grasslands campus.

Good Beginnings

Lynn grew up acutely aware of how educational barriers excluded Black families from fully participating in American society, a concept that agitated and ultimately motivated her grandmother, Dorothy Howard, to launch in 1929 the first integrated nursery school in DC.

Garden of Children, based out of Mrs. Howard’s home, initially served fewer than a dozen pupils. But it grew to average about 44 children a year, including children of diplomats, university presidents, and at least one Nobel laureate before it shut down in 1961, according to The Washington Post. Among them were Lynn’s mother Carolyn French, who grew up to be an educator, Lynn herself, and three younger siblings. 

 

Lynn's kindergarten class at the Garden of Children.

Lynn's kindergarten class at the Garden of Children.

When it came time for Lynn to enter 1st grade, her parents did not want her to attend a segregated school, which left her with two choices: GDS or Burgundy Farm Country Day School, the first school in Virginia to racially integrate. Her family opted for the former in part because of their familiarity with the School.

“A pattern had evolved of children who finished my grandmother’s nursery school going to Georgetown Day School,” Lynn said. She remembers her brief stint at the School’s Nebraska Avenue Grasslands campus as a very happy time. “We wore pants (dungarees), unheard of in those days to go to school, and called the teachers by their first names. It was a lovely, strong environment for me. Most of all, I was able to work at my own pace,” she said.

Lynn spent a year at GDS, moved to Boston for a year, returned to GDS for third grade, and then left for Detroit, Michigan, where her surgeon father Dr. David French established a private practice. The family returned to DC midway through her middle school years, and since GDS did not have a high school division back then, Lynn ended up at Immaculata Preparatory School with some of her closest GDS friends. Living on the 1700 block of S Street, one mile from Howard University, the family was attuned to and supportive of the fledgling years of the civil rights movement.

 

The U-Haul Incident

When Lynn graduated from high school, she was a self-described “rebel” who recoiled from the limited career opportunities for Black women in the still-segregated city: “You become a school teacher, a secretary, or you marry somebody who will take care of you,” she said. None of those options appealed to her, and she took off for Western College for Women in Ohio, hoping to find another path.

As Lynn was winding up her first year in college, the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee announced it would recruit and train volunteers on her campus to help register Black voters in Mississippi. Lynn wrote home to her parents, informing them that she would head to Mississippi that summer. The effort in 1964, known as Freedom Summer, would be met with a violent response from the Ku Klux Klan.

After her last exam that year, she found her mother and grandmother in front of her dorm frantically throwing her belongings into a U-Haul. “My mother said, ‘Somebody’s child is gonna get killed this summer, and it’s not going to be my child,’” Lynn recalls. “That’s the last time I just said, ‘Okay, Mama.’”

By the following year, her father was helping organize health care for civil rights marchers as part of the Medical Committee for Human Rights–a calling that he credited Lynn for inspiring. Dr. French cared for voting-rights protesters during the 1965 marches in Alabama, as well as the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. Lynn's mother drove the family van, which Dr. French had converted into an ambulance, along the protest route during the 1966 march.

Black Panthers Women

Joining the Black Panther Party

Lynn didn’t continue her college education for two years, still reeling in a temporary “funk” between wanting to go to college and wanting to be part of the Movement. Her father tried to entice her to go back to school during a visit to Chicago, where her aunt lived. But the appeal of community activism lured her to the Black Panther Party instead, which emerged as a force in Chicago’s West Side in 1968. No U-Haul rolled up to bring her home this time.

“What appealed to me about the Black Panther Party was the Ten-Point Program,” Lynn said. “The first of the ten points—‘We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.’— always did and always will speak to me. Also, within the Party, women had equal status as men.”

Though the Party’s militant image is most etched in the public consciousness, she said, its community service programs had a significant and sustained impact on families. “When people think of the Black Panther Party, they think of people with guns—and we did believe in self-defense, but pretty much what made the Party were the programs that benefited the community,” Lynn said. “And that’s where I was able to express myself.”

Lynn spent more of her time running the Party’s programs behind the scenes. She played a key role in starting a daycare for low-income families in Chicago, organizing food and clothing giveaways, launching a free breakfast program for school children, and beginning the Party’s Free Busing to Prison Program, which aimed to keep families connected to loved ones who were incarcerated, many of whom were Black.

Lynn also helped establish the Party’s free medical center and a roach-and-rodent eradication service for infested apartments. But it was her involvement with precedent-setting legal cases through the Party’s work with the People’s Law Office of Chicago that got her thinking about school again. The office represented people who were arrested in protests, and its work ignited her interest in becoming a “people’s lawyer.”

 In 1973, she left the Black Panther Party to return to school.

From Law School to City Council

Lynn was accepted at Wellesley College on a full scholarship, graduating magna cum laude, and then received her law degree from the University of Virginia. After practicing at two law firms, Lynn joined the public sector and worked as a staffer for the DC City Council.

In 1986, she helped Council Member Frank Smith draft the Homestead Housing Preservation Act in response to a housing bust that led to a spike in foreclosures and evictions in the city, establishing herself as an expert on the housing needs of the city’s most disadvantaged families.

For two decades, Lynn continued to work alongside DC lawmakers and federal housing authorities to help give the city’s low-income residents a shot at homeownership, despite political pushback and legal hassles. As the Homestead Housing Program Administrator for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, Lynn oversaw a popular housing lottery that helped families reclaim abandoned housing. And as the city gentrified, pushing poor families out of housing, Lynn coordinated the District’s efforts to meet a federal plan to address homelessness in the city–a task that aligned with her passion to prioritize building homes that could transition families out of homelessness.

Some council members sought an approach that focused on changing the face of DC real estate. “They were trying to make an argument that the blemish of a boarded-up property would go away faster if they could have the properties rather than sell them to people,” Lynn said. “But what we saw ourselves doing was investing in the citizens of the District of Columbia.”

When she retired in 2006, Lynn was asked to serve on the board of Hope and a Home, an organization dedicated to empowering low-income families with children in DC to create stable homes. In 2010, Lynn assumed the role of executive director and has led the organization’s efforts in transitional housing, education support plans, access to higher education, and food security programs ever since. The organization owns 19 units of housing scattered around the District and only accepts families with children.

“Our big goal is to break the cycle of poverty,” Lynn said. “There’s a lot of personal gratification in the work that I do in helping families. It’s not something you do to get rich.”

 

A first grade Lynn C. French ’63 with her grandmother Dorothy Howard. (courtesy of Lynn French)
Lynn (left) with her daughter, Tania Jackson, in Manhattan, January 2020
Lynn French '63: Former Black Panther and DC Homelessness Czar on building strong communities
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