Finding Olive

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I came to live in London in 1995 and settled in Brixton, where I still live. Like many Lambeth Residents, I have had my fair share of waiting time at Olive Morris House. I never thought much about the building’s name. In fact, in the back of my mind there was an unformed idea that the building was named after a man: Oliver Morris, perhaps a English gentleman of political or philanthropic leanings.

In August 2006, I was in Peckham Library doing some research about the history of Black activism in the UK. I was looking for images of people holding placards, when I came across a picture that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small black and white photograph, printed towards the back of The Windrush Legacy: Memories of Britain’s Post-War Caribbean Immigrants, a book published by The Black Cultural Archives in 1998. In the picture there was a young woman with a short afro and and her mouth open in a defiant gesture. She had the physical built of a teenager, and looked almost like a boy. She was holding a placard that read: BLACK SUFFERER FIGHT PIG POLICE BRUTALITY. She held a fag between her fingers and she was barefoot.

Olive with placard

© Neil Kenlock, Image reproduced with permission of the author.

The caption said that the picture had been taken at a Black Panther Movement demonstration in Coldharbour Lane, but there were no further references to Olive Morris in the book, apart from a dedication on the last page to her contributions to the Black struggle – from which I learned she had passed away.

I was startled. Could this be the same person that Lambeth Housing Services building was named after? I was puzzled and exited about the idea that a Council building had been given the name of a woman that – if one was to judge for the image – had been involved in radical activism within the Borough.

But who was this woman? I asked my friend Hurvin Anderson, who was working with me on the research, if he knew her. He told me that the name was familiar and he thought she was an activist that had died very young. He asked a friend who had been active with the Brixton Black Panthers Movement, and he confirmed that Olive had been a Black Panther herself, and was known for her fearlessness in confronting police abuse.

A Council building named after a female Black Panther. It seemed to defy belief in this age of non-confrontational politics. I wanted to know more. I searched and scoured the Internet for more information, but nothing came up. I found a brief comment in a forum for squatters that mentioned Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull as the first successful squatters of private property in Lambeth. A Council building named after a female Black Panther and squatter. A building dedicated to Housing Services.

I visited Olive Morris House, and saw the dedication plaque, under a framed picture of Olive smiling. The plaque mentioned her as the founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, and from her date of birth and death (1952-1979) I understood that I was in the presence of a remarkable historical figure, who in the span of her short life had managed to make an impressive contribution in many fronts.

Plaque at Olive Morris House

The research that brought Olive Morris to my attention was for a participatory arts project that went on to win a Archives Landmark Award from the London Metropolitan Archives. One of the prizes was the opportunity to use an actress or actor to perform a character of the period researched. I asked for an actress to perform Olive Morris to a live audience. I envisioned the actress in a Brixton street, barefoot and telling the audience the amazing story of her life, possibly in October to coincide with Black History Month. I was asked to provide the actress with a biographic script. My request for a street performance was denied on the account that October is a cold month, and ask to arrange for a suitable venue. I approached Brixton Library and the organisers of Black History Month and they were keen to host the performance during BHM 2007.

Olive Morris with friends

© Neil Kenlock, Image reproduced with permission of the author.

With all practicalities seemingly resolved, I set out to compile a biography of Olive Morris to give to the actress. Up until now I had presumed there will be plenty of public sources of information about Olive Morris. Records in archives, libraries, perhaps even a book or two written about her. The Black Cultural Archives had their archives in storage waiting for a new home. Lambeth Archives and Brixton Library didn’t have anything on file, although they knew of Olive Morris and her importance. The Women’s Library had some papers related to her but uncatalogued, and as such inaccessible. Nothing on the Internet, nothing on file.

And so is it that I set out on my search for Olive Morris. This weblog came about as the first step towards the performance I still want to put together, hopefully sometime in the near future. The blog was set up to keep a record of the search for Olive Morris, and in the different sections you will be able to find out more about what has been found so far. Hopefully, this blog will also grow up to be a reliable public repository dedicated to Olive Morris, enlarged and enriched with the stories and memories of all the people that had the privilege of knowing her.

Lambeth Archives had supported the creation of this blog in several ways, including putting me in touch with Liz Obi. Liz was a close friend of Olive, and in 2000 she organised an exhibition at Brixton Library entitled Rembering Olive. When I met Liz, the door that I had been searching for during a long year, suddenly opened wide. Liz has kindly shared with me many stories painting a vivid portrait of Olive’s character and of Brixton life in the 70s. She has furnished me with dates and facts, and showed me her personal archive of documents and photographs of Olive. We are now collaborating to bring these information out into the public domain. Many thanks to her and to all those who have kept Olive’s memory alive for the benefit of the rest of us. I have been enlightened and moved.

Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre. September 2007


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