Video: Ariane Wu
Read full transcript
In 2002, five years before journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered by members of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a woman identified only as Jane Doe 1 stepped forward to report decades of sexual abuse, welfare fraud and violence by the bakery’s leader, Yusuf Bey Sr.
She was prepared to hand over to Oakland police DNA from three of her children, evidence that Bey had impregnated her, the first time when she was 12 years old.
Given the history of violence by members of Your Black Muslim Bakery, this was a risky move. But the woman was fueled by a mother’s anger. Her daughter, then 18, alerted her that Bey was trying to abuse her – his own daughter.
Now a devout Christian, Jane Doe 1 has decided she no longer wants to be the nameless whistle-blower. Her name is Kowana Banks and, in her first public interview, she said she made the decision to come forward to help other children trapped in similar situations. She hopes to publish a book about her experiences.
“Abused people go one of two ways: Either they are going to self-destruct or they’re going to make a difference,” said Banks, 44. “I’m going to make a difference.”
The violent saga of Your Black Muslim Bakery is fading into Oakland history, but wounds remain among Bey’s victims and family members. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of Bailey, the Oakland Post editor who had been investigating the bakery’s finances.
The facts behind Banks’ story have been outlined in court proceedings and depositions, but her decision to come forward allows her to detail her unique insider’s perspective as a victim and survivor.
Today, Banks is an optimistic, composed woman who has moved on as best she can. One of her three children by Bey, Yusuf V, 25, is in San Quentin State Prison for his part in the 2007 kidnapping of two Oakland women, one who was tortured, a crime related to the bakery’s demise. The other two children are doing well.
Banks considers the three to be the “blessing out of what happened to me.”
Married for 18 years to a man she met after leaving the bakery, Banks says the bitterness and anger that grew from her childhood abuse dissolved when she fell in love. The couple have two children together.
“But it’s difficult to look back and know I was just a child then and that no one cared,” she said.
Throughout her childhood at the bakery, Banks said she felt abandoned by the social welfare system, invisible even to those at local hospitals where she – and many other underage girls at the bakery compound – gave birth to multiple children while still children themselves.
She delivered the first of three children by Bey at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley at 13. A social worker questioned Banks about the paternity of her son, she said, but under the watchful eye of one of Bey’s “wives,” Banks kept silent. Later, she said she told a child protection worker that she was working long hours and not going to school.
“She told me she would check into it, and I never saw her again,” Banks said.
Bey, a self-appointed minister who gave himself the title of “Dr.,” was formerly a hairdresser. He opened Your Black Muslim Bakery in the early 1970s, espousing black self-reliance and his own interpretation of Islam, which included racist attacks on whites. Nevertheless, in his more than 30 years in North Oakland, Bey gained the support of local business leaders, clergy and politicians eager to align with the underclass.
In 2003, Bey died before facing trial, setting off the struggle for power and control that escalated into mayhem and multiple murders. Banks said she saw the violence coming.
“You cut off the head,” Banks said, “and the body will go crazy.”
Molestations began at age 8
Banks, who was born in the East Bay, said her father, who had a drug problem, met Bey’s followers while doing jail time for drug-related crimes. Banks can’t remember her mother, who she said abandoned her as a toddler, along with a younger brother and older sister.
In 1976, Banks’ father brought the children to live in a house at the bakery compound, where he’d gotten a job. A hive of single-family homes, retail storefronts and apartments clustered on the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 59th Street in North Oakland, the compound housed bakery workers and Bey’s sprawling family of children and women Bey called his wives.
One Sunday night in 1976, Bey invited Banks to spend the night in his apartment, telling her she could play with his baby daughter. Banks was nervous and thought it strange to spend time with Bey, then 41. But her older sister had spent the night there and returned toting candy and new clothes. She said that night marked the first time Bey molested her. She was 8.
Bey told her to tell no one, she said. If she did, she would be killed.
“But he didn’t stop with me,” she said. “He told me he’d murder my whole family, everyone.”
Banks believes her father did not know about the incident, but the family moved away soon after that first molestation. They lived in Hayward for a while, and later, Banks’ father left her and her siblings with a grandmother near Monterey.
In 1978, after another arrest, her father brought them back to the bakery and left them with Bey.
Not long after, Banks said, Bey came into her bedroom above the bakery while she was sleeping, and he raped her. She was 10 and remembers wearing one-piece pink zip-up pajamas. After the assault, she sought help from Nora Bey, then 23, one of the minister’s many “wives.” Banks’ father had surrendered his paternal rights so Yusuf Bey could receive welfare for their care; the court appointed Nora Bey, later known as Esperanza Johnson, as their legal guardian.
“ ‘I need you to help me because he’s trying to do things to me,’ ” Banks recalls telling Nora Bey. “And her comment was, ‘Oh, girl, he’s not going to do anything to you that he hasn't done to anyone else.’ ”
Living in various bakery-owned homes, Banks was kept out of public school. She was smart, though, and soon became an integral part of the bakery, which sold pies and sandwiches from its San Pablo Avenue storefront. She learned bookkeeping and taught basic math and reading at the bakery’s school. Her life was regimented; she baked from 4 to 8 a.m., taught in the bakery’s combined school and day care until 6 p.m., and then wrapped bakery products until 10 p.m.