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Richmond Woman Maintains Unique Film Archive Focused On Black Panther Party

Jon Kalish
For the past 40 years Roz Payne has maintained a unique film archive focused on the Black Panthers.

In the late 1960s and early 70s when denizens of the counter-culture settled in Vermont, a group of New York City filmmakers joined the migration. Roz Payne was one of them.

Payne is now in her early 70‘s and lives in Richmond. For the past 40 years she has maintained a unique film archive focused on one particular group that figured prominently in the turbulent 1960s, the Black Panther Party.

Considering her family background, it should come as no surprise that Roz Payne is not terribly fond of the FBI.

“I hate the FBI, ‘cause they went after my mother,” said Payne. “My mother was a communist and had been in jail. And I grew up with these guys coming to the door all the time. I hated them so much. I didn’t know exactly what it was when I was young but my mother wasn’t happy when they showed up, that’s what I knew.”

Roz Payne shows a newspaper photo of her mother Edith being taken into custody at a textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during the Great Depression. With her red diaper baby roots, it’s no surprise, then, that Payne was part of an antiwar filmmakers group called Newsreel and appreciated the cause championed by the Black Panther Party.

When she lived in New York in the late 1960’s, Payne showed films at the party’s Harlem branch. In 1969 she accompanied one Black Panther who surrendered to police as party of the so-called Panther 21 who were charged with conspiring to blow up police stations, school buildings and other public targets in New York. Payne attended the trial of the Panther 21 members who were all acquitted.

“Hanging out with the Black Panthers is one of the most important things in my life,” said Payne. “I still meet with Black Panthers. I get invited to every re-union and I go to California often to hang out with them and I’m treated really kindly because they all know what I’ve done.”

"Hanging out with the Black Panthers is one of the most important things in my life." - Roz Payne

One of the things Payne has done is release a 12-hour DVD set titled What We Want, What We Believe. Several thousand copies have been sold to libraries, academic institutions and individuals interested in the Black Panthers. The DVD’s include footage from the 1960s and 70s recordings of Black Panther reunions, interviews with defense lawyers and Payne’s interrogation of retired agents who monitored the Panthers for the FBI.

Interviews With Retired FBI Agents

“I wanted to get into the minds of FBI agents who went after Black Panthers,” said Payne. “I wasn’t trying to expose these agents. I wanted to get the story of what the FBI did to black people.”

Retired FBI agent William A. Cohendet was one of the agents Payne tracked down. His initials and his entertaining field reports on the Panthers prompted defense lawyers to dub him Agent WAC.

“I was the case agent for the Black Panther Party,” Cohendet said in his interview with Payne. “The bureau line used to be how dangerous they were and do something about it.”

"We began talking and he was this old dude who I liked immediately as a person...he was thrilled that I was there because nobody ever went to interview him or anything." -Roz Payne on interviewing retired FBI agent William A. Cohendet

Payne says she remembers liking Cohendet.

“We began talking and he was this old dude who I liked immediately as a person,” said Payne. “He was kind. He was smiling. He was thrilled that I was there because nobody ever went to interview him or anything.”

Payne’s desire to learn as much as she could about the FBI prompted her to read through the bureau’s in-house journals in the library of the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. Payne spent a week there after being elected constable of Richmond in 1989. Before that, she got two sociology professors at UVM to recruit students who read through hundreds of thousands of FBI documents on the Black Panthers.

A Burlington-based computer whiz named Jan Schultz created a computerized index of the FBI papers on a UVM mainframe computer. Roz Payne’s knowledge-- and first-hand experience-- of 1960s history has been utilized in the classroom. She taught a course on the era at Burlington College.

A Local Mushroom Expert

Payne has also held forth on mycology at the college. That’s the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Payne has led many a mushroom gathering expedition in Vermont woods.

“I know every spot within 20 miles of here where to get boletis, edguliss, porcini, chanterelles. I know where each clump grows by now. You just gotta make sure you know your mushroom because there’s some that will make you sick and some can kill you. It’s like knowing your friends. You’ve got to know your friends and know your mushrooms,” said Payne.

A Potential Career In Law

One of Payne’s friends is Burlington attorney Sandy Baird. Payne worked as a legal investigator and law clerk for Baird during the 1980s.

“She was clerking to become a lawyer. That’s why initially she came to my office,” said Baird. “Roz did complete four years of study. She always was interested in arguing and in winning cases. She has a strong desire to win, which lawyers have to have. She would’ve made a fine lawyer.”

But Payne abandoned her plan to become a lawyer and never took the bar exam.

“What changed my mind is that I couldn’t stand listening to people complaining all the time, their problems,” said Payne.

Instead, Roz Payne has dedicated her life to keeping some of her 1960s history alive.

Manhattan-based radio reporter Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980. Links to radio documentaries, podcasts & stories on NPR are at Find him on Twitter: @kalishjon
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