Posts Tagged ‘Black Women

27
Jul
09

Olive’s early activist intervention

An early incident in Olive Morris’ political awakening begins to demonstrate how she was, as her brother Errol Morris characterized her “a people’s person.” The common folklore states that on 15 November 1969 Olive, at the age of 17, intervened when the police arrested “a black man driving a nice car” on the streets of Brixton. Olive appears  disheveled here in a photograph taken at King’s College Hospital after her arrest. Her shirt is soiled, her face swollen.

The story of her arrest and the photograph circulate as evidence of Olive’s willingness to step into the fray and to do so boldly.

In a major newspaper’s report on the incident, the man driving the nice car was, in fact, named as Clement Gomwalk, a diplomat with the Nigerian High Commission who’d illegally parked his Mercedes in a “no waiting” zone while he and his wife did some shopping. The report goes on to note that six people, not solely Olive, were arrested and charged with “assault on police, threatening behavior, and possessing offensive weapons.”

As the newspaper later reports on Olive’s sentencing, “During the melee Miss Morris kicked a police officer and hit him on the jaw.” Olive’s handwriting on the reverse of the photo tells a different story, not related in the newspaper account: “Taken at about 10pm on 15th Nov 69 after the police had beaten me up.”

She received a suspended three-year jail sentence that was later reduced to one-year suspended.

The details of this event as it have come to signal Olive’s entry into activism with police abuses of the community being a key feature. Correcting the record to note that she did not, in fact, act alone, doesn’t detract from her bravery in intervening, but instead recasts Olive as an instigator of change. However, one gets the sense from her later activism that Olive didn’t seem to care whether people followed her or not. Commenting on Olive at ROC’s “Creation and Liberation: Black Panthers in Brixton” event, Brixton community activist Elaine Holness, who knew Olive said, she “didn’t mess around” and expected those in struggle with her to “hold the line and deliver.” Whether one of six people protesting an arrest or later mythologized as the sole intervener, this story begins to help us understand how Morris approached, in her short time, a life’s worth of activism centered on basic human rights. Or as British photographer Neil Kenlock describes it, Olive’s “fight for equality.”

19
Oct
07

South London Press – Brixton’s force to be reckoned with

Brixton’s force to be reckoned with by Jon Newman – Head of Lambeth Archives
19 October 2007, South London Press

ompress_01.jpg

If you mention the name Olive Morris in Lambeth most people think of the rather forbidding council offices on Brixton Hill which bear her name. Olive Morris House is on the right hand side as you go up from the Town Hall and has served since 1986 variously as Lambeth’s Finance and Housing Benefits office. Few would describe it as a lovely building and even the current makeover that will transform it into a Customer Centre is not going to change that rather brooding and monolithic quality that it has always had.

Anyone venturing inside Olive’s ‘house’- normally on business rather than pleasure – may notice the simple plaque in the foyer that records the opening of the building and its dedication to Olive, who died in 1979 at the age of just 27 and was the founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. It was one of a number of council buildings that were named or renamed in the 1980s to commemorate prominent black people in the borough. Who now remembers Paul Robeson House on South Lambeth Road, now the Comfort Inn hotel, or the fast-disappearing Mary Seacole House on Clapham High Street?

So far, so succinct. But just who was Olive Morris? There is surprisingly little information about her, either at Lambeth Archives or out on the web. But we do know that in her short life Olive not only helped found the Brixton Women’s Group but was also involved in setting up the Brixton Black Panthers – which in turn fed into various important Brixton-based groups like the Black Workers Movement and the Race Today Collective. She was also actively involved in the early squatting movement in the mid-70s. In other words she was an important player in aspects of Brixton’s recent history that could all too easily become forgotten.

Hopefully this is set to change thanks to a piece of work by local artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre who has just set up a web log to collect local people’s memories of Olive. The blog was launched at Lambeth Archives appropriately on the first day of Black History month and will remain open for contributions for the next 6 – 12 months.

If you want to find out more about Olive and the local politics of the 1970s; or if you have memories of those times yourselves that you would like to offer, then Ana Laura is waiting to hear from you. You can access the blog at http://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/

08
Oct
07

Weblog launch at Minet Library

To read the full post click on the title above

On Monday 1 October 2007, on a very wet London evening, a group of people braved the weather to gather at Minet Library for the official launch of this weblog.

The launch consisted in a presentation about the origin of the project, and a demonstration of the blog (its contents and how to use it). Liz Obi shared with the audience some personal words about Olive, and qualified her interest in recuperating the memory of Olive Morris. The discussion was then opened to the audience, that included some people who knew Olive both personally and from references, and some others who simply wanted to find out more about her. Conversation continued over drinks and music, and people had a chance to look at the exhibition about Olive Morris that Liz Obi kindly brought into the Library. The few of us who went on in the search for a pub, were rewarded with a chance encounter with an old friend of Olive.

Many thanks to all that came, and to all of you who have sent emails of support, and volunteered help to take the project further.

launch pic1
Image © Lucia Pizzani. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

Liz Obi’s Remembering Olive exhibition can be seen at Minet Library until Friday 14 October. It will then go on tour to Lambeth’s Women Project (166A Stockwell Road), where on Tuesday 16 October 6.30 they will be launching a reading club with a selection of books related to Black History. Lambeth Women’s Project is currently facing the threat of closure. Visit their link to support their petition.

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Here is a personal account of the evening:

I arrived early to set up the equipment, and was soon joined by Liz, who brought the exhibition about Olive Morris she had presented in 2000 at Brixton Library. Liz also brought some candles, incense and some of her plants. The exhibition boards were covered in African textiles. As an artist, I was pleased to see (and gently reminded of) how little it takes to give a personal touch to what we do, when we take temporary occupation of an institutional space.

The presentation was introduced by Jon Newman from Lambeth Archives, who explained why the Archives had chosen to support the project. The use of weblog technology was an innovative tool, but also the fact that it was an artist-led project brought “a different sensibility” to their job of collecting and preserving local history.

launch Jon

Image © Ermiyas Mekonnen. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

I started the presentation by welcoming the audience, and as an introduction and a form of setting the wider background against which this project was conceived, we showed a 6 minutes long video, made the previous week in collaboration with Liz Obi.

I went on to tell the story of how I came to be interested in Olive Morris, a story that is also narrated in this blog in a separate post (The starting point).

launch pic2

Image © Lucia Pizzani. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

I then showed the blog and its contents to the audience, and explained the different sections in which I have tried to organise the information. I wanted to give a sense of the breadth of Olive Morris work and interests, but try to keep a non-linear, or non-chronological order. I described the fragmented way in which I have compiled the information, and that I hoped the blog maintained that open structure, where snapshots from Olive’s life and her times could be connected through the personal journeys or interests of those reading and contributing to the blog.

launch pic3

Image © Lucia Pizzani. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

Following the more formal part of the presentation, Liz Obi spoke to the audience about her personal relationship to Olive Morris, and about the journey she had embarked a few years ago when she decided to put together the Remembering Olive exhibition. Liz also spoke about Olive’s legacy and what she had learnt from her. She went on to tell the audience about her initial reticence when we first met: “what does this white woman wants to do with Olive’s story”, but understanding the motives she had agreed to collaborate and share her knowledge with me. Liz’s words of support and her engagement with the project had so far been crucial to the development of the blog.

In contrast to Liz’s own search for Olive’s history, where she both had the personal knowledge (dates, places, names) and the trust and access to those who knew and worked with Olive, the issue of me being an “outsider” is – I feel – quite central to the success or failure of the project.

launch pic4

Image © Lucia Pizzani. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

The conversation was then opened to the floor, and this is a summery of the things that were spoken about:

We had the pleasure to count amongst the audience with Sandra, who had known Olive despite being several years younger. Sandra told us how she had moved into 121 Railton Road squat after Liz and Olive moved out, and was involved with her partner in setting up and running Sabaar Bookshop. There was quite an animated discussion about the lack of awareness of this story of Black squats, and of the paradox of having a housing building named after Olive Morris. A lineage of Black squats was traced from 121 Railton Road, to the recently closed Rastafarian Centre at St Agnes Place.

There was also some debate as to whether the naming of buildings and streets are actually a positive thing and the desired recognition of Black people’s achievements, or whether – as Jon Newman pointed out – it could be simply a political gesture that can be easily undone, as it is actually happening in South London nowadays (the renaming of Mary Secoale House was given as an example). The current situation of Olive Morris House refurbishment was discussed, and this is one of the areas where the audience felt there could be some concrete outcome that could come out of this project.

launch Neil

Image © Ermiyas Mekonnen. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

Neil Kenlock – who was present, kindly offered to go through his archive and make his photographs of Olive available free of charge for this blog. Neil reminded the audience that it would be a pity if Olive Morris went down in history as a squatter, because above all, her fight was “a fight for equality, and this is how she should be remembered”. Neil spoke about his photograph (which was the trigger for this project), and told us about Olive’s courage and fearlessness. He said: “it took a lot of courage for her to stand there holding that placard. Those were tough times and many big and strong men didn’t have the gust to do it, but Olive did. She even took her shoes off”.

We also had the honor of counting with Tamara Lewis in the audience. Tamara is Olive’s niece but was born after her death. She said: “seeing and hearing all this, I keep thinking how happy Grandma would have been if she was here today”. This prompted some comments about Ms Doris Morris, and her own engagement with political activism, as the source of both the inspiration and the support that Olive found in her own family.

launch portraits

Image © Ermiyas Mekonnen. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

There was a sense – specially in those who knew little about Olive Morris – of the importance of recuperating her figure within our local community – not just as an inspiration for Black people, but as an example for everyone. As Liz said, what was most important about Olive’s legacy is that she showed us we all can, as individuals, make a difference. That this power we had as individuals to stand up against injustice, is a very real power and that we should not hesitate to use it on our own and in collaboration with others.

With the good atmosphere amongst the audience – a gathering of people paying respects and honoring the memory of Olive Morris – it was easy for all of us to push away the chairs and carry on chatting over a drink, to the sound of some classic reggae tracks.

When it was time to go, a small group of us started on the search for a local pub. We stumbled by chance upon an “old style Brixton pub” of the kind that have now vanished from Brixton centre. Just as we walked into the pub, Liz shouted and run after a man that was popping out to smoke a cigarette. He had been a close friend of Olive throughout her life, and over a few cigarettes shared in the outdoor cold, he pieced together with Liz some memories of Olive’s early youth and later years. It seemed to us that it had been Olive’s spirit guising us to that pub.

launch pic5

Image © Lucia Pizzani. Image reproduced with permission of the author.

Just after midnight Liz Obi, Oniel Williams and I walked together all the way to Brixton, still talking about Olive and her times, the fate of “the 70s struggle”, contemporary politics, the third world, and the reality of life in Brixton as experienced by our children. Just as we were coming into Coldharbour Lane we saw a police van, and several police officers in the process of searching two young Black men. One of the police officers was feeling the youth’s toes over his white sport socks, and another was holding in his silicone gloved hand a forensic evidence bag with a small amount of weed in it. We walked past them and a third police officer volunteered – with a smile – some community relations nicety to us, as we continued our journey without making any fuss.

There it was in a nut shell, the sign of the changing times. Much talk was made on this night about what would Olive Morris would be doing nowadays, were she still alive. For sure she would have something to say.

28
Sep
07

The trip to China

To read the full post click on the title above

Olive Morris was both an avid traveler and an internationalist. Towards the end of her life she was to visit China with a delegation of British people, possibly Marxists with whom she had made contact during her University years in Manchester.

These photographs of the trip to China show a more mature Olive, with the same confidence of her younger years but perhaps a little less fury.

Olive Morris in China

Olive Morris in China

It pains to see her relaxed and happy face in this picture by the water, and to think that someone who looks so at ease in the world was to die so soon.

The stamps on her passport indicate that she traveled via Hong Kong, arriving there on August 11 1977 and departing for mainland on August 12 1977. On September 3 1977 she returns to the UK again via Hong Kong.

China trip

If you have any information about this trip, or were in the same party, please use the comments box below to share your memories.

28
Sep
07

The Morris family

To read the full post click on the title above

On a tip from Liz Obi, I managed to track down Ms Yana Morris, Olive’s sister who works as a head teacher in South London. I made contact with her and sent her information about the project and this weblog. A few days later I received an email from Ms Jennifer Lewis, another of Olive’s sisters:

Dear Ana Laura,

My name is Jennifer and I am Olives other sister, I was pleased to hear of your intentions from Yana. Funnily enough my daughter Tamara had a similar idea some time ago and did try to contact Liz but to no avail. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend the launch in the Minet library however my daughter will attend and I would be happy to contribute in any way I can.

At some stage our mother was actually asked to put some history of Olive’s life on paper, these we found when she passed away and perhaps these would be of use to you in your research?

It is a wonderful discovery to know there is an account of Olive’s story written by her own mother, and hopefully with permission of the family, we will be able to publish some of it in this weblog.

Ms Doris Morris was a steward with the TUC, and it would be also interesting to know whether Bill Morris is related to Olive’s family. (In 1991 Bill Morris became the first black General Secretary of a TUC affiliated union, the TGWU – Transport and General Workers’ Union.)

Errol Morris – Olive’s younger brother posted this tribute as a comment in the Contribute page:

As Olive’s younger brother, she was a key figure in our family setup.

For me she was an advisor as well as a sister with all kinds of problems I had in my life at that time. It was only when she died did I find out about all of her achievements which made me and the family proud. I do remember when I was young, my mum talking to my dad about Olive being arrested “again” for some demo only to be released without being charged, yet again, which made me feel stronger about fighting injustice throughout my life.

She was one of my role models and a good role model to women and all black people living in the UK. If young people knew Olives story, they would find it very interesting, sad, funny and entertaining. It took over 2 years to come to terms with olives death, but now i still feel her presence, watching me and when i pass Olive Morris House, Brixton, it reminds me that she made a difference to people, now my whole family try to do the same.

NOW WE ARE ALL WORKING FOR THE PEOPLE, “SHE WAS A PEOPLE’S PERSON”

ERROL MORRIS
TRAINER/ASSESSOR
LEARNING MENTOR

28
Sep
07

121 Railton Road

To read the full post click on the title above

At the end of 1972 Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull (Obi) found themselves without a place to live and not much money to rent. Taking the cue from a group of white women who had squatted a building on Railton Road and were running a Women’s Centre, they decided to inspect the area and find a suitable property.

They settled for 121 Railton Road, an empty privately owned property on a corner, with a shop on the ground floor. They squatted the building, and made it their home. As opposed to Council owned property, squatting private buildings was a much more tricky affair. The owners and property agents waged war against squatters, aided by a local police force only too happy to get their hands on the job of harassing Black youth, whose behavior was mostly construed as being either criminal or subversive.

From: A decade of squatting: The story of squatting in Britain since 1968 by Steve Platt

Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull became the first successful squatters of private property in Lambeth when they occupied a flat above a launderette in Railton Road. Successfully fighting off attempts at illegal eviction, they set an example for hundreds of homeless young people in Brixton and the flat remained squatted for many years.

Liz and Olive resisted several eviction attempts, and were arrested in many occasions. Every time, they went back to the squat and just carried on. The most notorious of the evictions was well documented in the local press. On a January morning of 1973, while Olive was away at work, the police forcefully took Liz from the house and brought her to the police station. When Olive returned to the house, she simply got back in the building. The police came back to take her away too, but Olive climbed onto the roof of the house and from there she harangued the policemen on the street.

Pictures from the day appeared in local papers, and several years after the episode the iconic photograph of Olive climbing onto the roof of the building went on to the cover of the Squatters Handbook 1979 Edition.

121 Railton Road

This picture from 1973 shows Olive confronting a rather overwhelmed property agent Mr Defries, whilst in the background a sign proclaims:

LEGAL WARNING

THIS PROPERTY HAS BEEN OCCUPIED BY SQUATTERS. WE INTEND TO STAY HERE. IF YOU TRY TO EVICT US, WE WILL PROSECUTE. YOU MUST DEAL WITH US THROUGH THE COURTS.

And so the owners of the building did. Eventually, after resisting several evictions, and going through legal steps that made it very hard for them to remain squatting the same property, Liz and Olive decided to move down the road and squat a Council property at 64 Railton Road. 121 Railton Road was continued to be used for meetings of Black organisations, and the Sabaar Bookshop was also run from the premises.

Lambeth Council purchased the property at some point during the 80s, and the building continued to be squatted by anarchists and feminists from 1981 until the final eviction in 1999, making it one of the longest squats in the history of Brixton.

The squatters movement in Brixton was particularly strong, starting at the end of the 50s and stretching well into the 90s. Housing shortages in Lambeth were severe. In A History of Brixton, Alan Piper explains how after the Second World War the combination of damage caused by the bombings and rent controls introduced after the First World War, meant that in Lambeth no one was building to rent, whilst the existing housing stock was deteriorating quickly. Demand for accommodation from West Indian immigrants was high. For the Black population it was particularly hard to find decent and affordable accommodation. John Salaway, in his book about the 1981 Brixton riots, refers to the housing crisis of the 70s:

Sheila Patterson suggests that Lambeth Council, managing a slum clearance resettlement putting enormous pressure on waiting lists, was deliberately allowing Black overcrowding of properties go unchecked so that tenants would not have to be re-housed in Council property

The Council was busy demolishing the slums and rehousing their population in newly built Council Estates such as Angel Town and Stockwell Park. Private owners were either selling their run down property to West Indians at extortionate prices, or to developers that accumulated properties and simply let them crumble away empty, waiting to cash on the promised regeneration of the area. Lambeth Council had in the pipeline ambitious plans for demolition and development, and so repairs were not being made to their existing housing stock.

From: A decade of squatting: The story of squatting in Britain since 1968 by Steve Platt

For those people who fell between the twin stools of home ownership and council housing (ie those who would traditionally have been housed in the private sector), opportunities were shrinking, rents rocketing and security diminishing. This increasing desperation of people at the bottom end of the housing market together with the growing number of empty houses, led to the growth of squatting both in scale and scope.

[…]

By the end of 1975 unlicensed squatting had almost established itself as a routine method of finding housing in the short term. A number of housing officials stated in private that squatting had to be tolerated, quite simply because it was impossible to envisage any alternative for the estimated 40-50,000 squatters. The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) reported in a press release that housing aid centres, social service departments, citizens advice bureaux, probation services and even the police were regularly referring people to them. Brixton Women’s Centre [the so-called White Women Centre also located in Railton Road] received as many as 30-40 referrals in one week from Lambeth Social Services Department.

Official attitudes towards squatting were, however, paradoxical. While there was often a measure off acceptance of squatting as inescapable, even necessary, there was also strong determination to bring it under control. As an officer’s report in November 1974 to Lambeth Council’s Housing Committee put it: “The council is faced with a situation which is clearly out of control and the need is to bring it under control as quickly as possible”.

There are several references to the 121 Railton Road on squatters and anarchist online literature, but aside from Steve Platt’s essay quoted above, there is no mention to the original occupancy of the property first by Olive and Liz, and other Black activists throughout the 70s.

What follows are two accounts of the 121 Railton Road squat during the early 80s:

From: Bulleting of the Kate Sharpley Library

Number 121 Railton Road was a large corner building covering three stories plus cellar, it’s ground floor was formerly a shop. In the early days no real attempt was made to do anything with the building other than to hold meetings, parties and act as a hostel for the numerous comrades visiting the big smoke. As the number of anarchists in Brixton grew and contact was made with local anarchists (one of the big lies about the 121 anarchists was they were all outsiders) 121 was transformed into an almost 24 hour a day activity centre, housing a bookshop (admittedly running very erratic opening times but none the less it was to remain open for 10 years), a cafe and a disco in the cellar – the only place where one could be sure the floor would not cave-in.

From: Albert Meltzer – I couldn’t paint golden angels

When the Brixton riots began in 1981, the police did their best to blame anarchists, who had just squatted an empty shop at No. 121 Railton Road, and might otherwise have been the perfect patsy. It was rather difficult as the rioters were Black youths pushed by harassment, and few of them at that time knew what anarchism was about, certainly theoretically. The riots started in Railton Road, and 121 was left untouched when the pub that had operated a racist policy opposite was burned down, but it was the police who unwisely started a battle there, driving the battling youths out of Railton Road on to the main Brixton shopping centre.

28
Sep
07

Remembering Olive Exhibition

To read the full post click on the title above

Remembering Olive exhibition

In the year 2000, Liz Obi organised an exhibition at Brixton Library entitled Remembering Olive. Her intention was not only to bring to the public attention Olive’s achievements, but in a similar line of thought as this blog, Liz wanted to invite people to add and extend the exhibition with their personal memories of Olive.

During the exhibition there was an evening of remembrance, where friends and family members came to speak about Olive and her legacy. Liz also compiled some written testimonies from people that knew her, including some very moving accounts from women who Olive helped or supported at difficult times.

Remembering Olive exhibition

Liz created a very special feel for the exhibition, covering the display boards with African fabrics, accompanied by fresh flowers, candles and a guest book for visitors’ comments. With loving dedication, Liz herself was present most of the time at the exhibition, ready to talk to visitors.

When I approached Brixton Library seeking information about Olive Morris, I was told about the exhibition but there were no kept records, no pictures or information about the dates or the name of who had organised it. I was thus delighted when I met Liz and she told me she had been responsible for the exhibition, and allowed me to publish her own pictures of the exhibition here.

As part of the launch of this weblog, Liz will be bringing her exhibition to Minet Library. Liz has also been invited recently by a manager at Olive Morris House, to install the exhibition in the ground floor of Olive Morris House. If you would like to host the exhibition at your place of work or at a local venue and you can arrange for Liz expenses to be covered, she’d be delighted to arrange a loan. Please get in touch to ask for her contact details.