Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

Pete O'Neal listens to a story by one of the young orphans living in his compound, Joshua Emmanuel, 6. If exile saved O'Neal, it has also meant a life in which the sense of being a stranger never goes away. "There's always a feeling of not being completely part of this culture. I know I am of a different tribe," he says. "People like me here, they love me, but I'm always other than."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A wall surrounding Pete O'Neal's compound has a memorial to Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former Black Panther field marshal who spent decades behind bars on a murder conviction before a California judge reversed it. Pratt, who died last year, had moved to Tanzania and bought a farm near O'Neal's home.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal shadow boxes with Kayode Jaga, 8, the son of his deceased friend Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt on the eve of a memorial for Pratt. In 2002, Pratt bought a big farmhouse nearby with his false-imprisonment settlement and O'Neal felt as though he'd rediscovered a lost brother.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal enjoys an evening of laughter with his orphans and two volunteer English teachers, Zack and Kelsey, in his bedroom in the Tanzanian compound. The orphans call him Babu, or Grandfather.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Many of the young orphans gather round to watch, and lend their support, as Pete O'Neal has fresh ink applied to his fading black panther tattoo.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal walks hand in hand with one of his orphans.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A few years back, an ambition seized Pete O'Neal: The Tanzanian village of Imbaseni, where he lives, had scores of destitute children, orphans from dirt-floor shacks and subsistence farms. He collected donations and built a concrete-block bunkhouse down near his tomato and pepper garden. He spread word that he had room for a few kids. More than a hundred appeared at his door, many shoeless. He had to send the majority away. The most desperate, a couple dozen, he informally adopted.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

The orphans' shoes are scrubbed clean. Money is too tight for new ones.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

All the orphans get a razored haircut -- both boys and girls -- and wash off the loose stubble under cold water at the tap.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal is overseeing the refurbishing of a 29-seat bus. The dents are repaired, the chassis rebuilt, the engine replaced. One day soon, he hopes to take the children southeast across Tanzania to the Swahili Coast, with its coral reefs and pale sand and bright-painted old dhows.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal oversees the refurbishing of the 29-seater.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal's four-acre compound bustles with visitors, some of them preparing dance routines for the memorial service for Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, the onetime Black Panther who died in his farmhouse down the road, his affairs untidy, his will unfinished, his death a sharp message to O'Neal not to put off the making of his own will any longer.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Amid the prayers and the singing and the tributes, Charlotte O'Neal, Pete's wife, raises a toast skyward in honor of their late good friend Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's 8-year-old son Kayode Jaga joins others in planting a memorial tree in honor of his late father. The boy and his mother traveled from the United States to Tanzania to attend the memorial service.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Pete O'Neal's wife of 42 years, Charlotte, performs a traditional Tanzanian dance for a new group of American high school students during a cultural introduction at the O'Neal compound.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A federal judge sentenced Pete O'Neal, pictured here with Charlotte Hill O'Neal, his wife of 42 years, to a four-year prison term on a conviction of transporting a shotgun across state lines. Out on bail, he decided to run. He and Charlotte fled in 1970 to Sweden, then to Algeria, and finally, in late 1972, to Tanzania, whose socialist government welcomed left-wing militants.The O'Neals had $700. After a few years they bought a patch of inhospitable brush and volcanic rock in Imbaseni, a cobra-infested village of thatched-roof shacks in the country's remote northern interior.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A decades-old poster displays an armed Pete O'Neal with his wife, Charlotte.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

References to the Panthers abound in the Tanzanian compound.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A group of American high school students arrive at Pete O'Neal's compound for a cultural exchange. They've been coming by the busload for years, often intrigued by the prospect of staying with a former Black Panther. They pay O'Neal $30 a night or whatever they can afford for a bunk. The money together with sporadic donations from sympathetic friends in Tanzania and abroad pays the bills.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

American high school students gather around Pete O'Neal in his compound's dining pavilion.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles times

Orphans living at Pete O'Neal's compound head for school early one summer morning.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Elia Privatus practices her plastic plate-balancing act before heading off to bed. The young orphan was gearing up to perform during the memorial service for Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

Orphan boys gather round and share stories from their day before going to sleep in their bunk beds. The boys sleep on one side of the compound and the girls on the other.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

The orphans sleep in rows under anti-malaria nets. Volunteers and a few staff members watch over the children and give them English and computer classes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

A Pete O'Neal rule: Shoes must be taken off to enter his home. Many of the orphans who came to live at the compound originally had no shoes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

An orphan opens a door in the compound. Pete O'Neal pretty much has an open-door policy when it comes to his orphans visiting him in his quarters. He is often heard yelling from his bedroom/office: "Close that front door!"

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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When last he walked America’s streets, Pete O’Neal was a magnetic young man possessed of bottomless anger. He was an ex-con who’d found a kind of religion in late-’60s black nationalism, a vain, violent street hustler reborn in a Black Panther uniform of dark sunglasses, beret and leather jacket. Now he’s living in a Tanzanian village where he’s been a champion of children, cultivating his good instincts.

Read Christopher Goffard’s story.

2 Comments

  1. January 30, 2012, 11:21 am

    Is there a way to email him. I escort groups to Africa, and 2-4 times a year to Tanzania. All my guests participate in my Operation Backpack to bring donations and supplies to a local school/village/orphanage, which my agency supports in every country I escort groups to in Africa. I'd like to arrange my next visit to take them to his school/orphanage, if that's possible. I remember the Black Panthers, and the aftermath of all the negativity as portrayed by the press and media at that time, much of it undeserved IMHO. So this is a great story, proud to read it. And since Tanzania is my second home, so to speak, even prouder.

    By: njeri@mac.com
  2. July 16, 2012, 12:37 pm

    You can link him on facebook, using his name. I did so for the same purpose – best

    By: noconocnnooco

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