Posts Tagged ‘olive morris


Brixton Black Women’s Group

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The Brixton Black Women’s Group was started by Olive Morris and other women who had been active in the Black Panther Movement. The Group was formed to address the specific issues faced by Black women, and to offer advice and support to those in difficulties. It originally operated from Olive and Liz’s squat at 65 Railton Road. With the years, the BWG developed and transformed into the Black Women Centre, relocating its premises to Stockwell Green.

I have found references for two academic papers about the BWG, but they are not publicly available on the Internet. If anyone can access hard copies, it’d be of great help in tracking down the history of the Group.

Brixton Black Women’s Group
Feminist Review, No. 17, Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives (Autumn, 1984), pp. 84-89

Brixton Black Women’s Centre: Organizing on Child Sexual Abuse
Marlene T. Bogle
Feminist Review, No. 28, Family Secrets: Child Sexual Abuse (Spring, 1988), pp. 132-135

At The Women’s Library, there are also some material relating to Olive Morris and the Black Women’s Group, Brixton, within an archive box containing the papers of Janet E Hadley. Janet E Hadley was born in 1949, in her 20s she was very much involved in the radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s, predominantly the women’s liberation movement as well as socialist revolutionary politics. These materials are not cataloged and as such are not publicly accessible.

The BWG was one of the organisations that was closest to Olive’s heart, amongst the many she founded and worked for. On the commemorative plaque at Olive Morris House, the BWG is the only organisation mentioned. It would be wonderful to get more information, comments and memories from the women that shared those times with her.


Liz Obi

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While I was liaising with Lambeth Archives over the publicity for the weblog launch, the name and contact of Liz Obi was given to me.

Tim O’Dell and Jon Newman had been in touch with her to source some images for the BHM programme. After a few emails and phone calls, I met Liz for coffee at Brixton Market. On that morning I learned more about Olive Morris than in a whole year of poking and probing archives and the Internet. Liz had been a close friend of Olive at one time. Together they squatted 121 Railton Road, and in 1972 they hitch hiked their way to North Africa in search of a Black Panther in exile.

Cover passport

After questioning me and listening at my story and my reasons for wanting to do this project, Liz agreed to help me. I invited her to speak at the web launch, and she kindly offered also to bring some of the exhibition materials to arrange a display on the day.

Liz invited me to her house to see the materials she had. When she organised the exhibition at Brixton Library in 2000, Liz added to her personal archive, photocopies of items found in libraries and archives. Having lived through those years, Liz knew what and where to look for information. She also contacted Mike McColgan, a long-term friend of Olive. Mike had in his possession many documents belonging to Olive, including school notebooks and college essays, correspondence with several community organisations, albums of personal pictures, and even notes of condolence received after Olive’s death. He gave all this material to Liz, to complement the materials she had already gathered for the exhibition.

For my visit, Liz had taken all the documents out of storage, and even pinned up several items on the exhibition boards. She had prepared also a selection of books that were influential to her and Olive in the 70s (see reading list). Liz talked me through the items I was picking up at random, answering my questions and adding her personal comments and stories. I was like a kid in a toy shop, and Liz had more or less to throw me out of her house. I could have stayed there all day going through this amazing collection. I left with a handful of borrowed pictures and documents to scan, now published on this website, including Olive’s passport. This was was specially moving for me, to have her passport in my house, it made me feel as if I myself had been a friend of Olive.

passport first page

Of the many things that Liz had to say about Olive, there were two that stood out for me. The first was Liz description of Olive, and how she always visualised her whenever she thought of her: silver bangles on her arms and forever riding her bike. The second had to do with what Liz had learned from Olive: never to be afraid of anything.


Manchester Black Women’s Co-op

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In 1975 Olive Morris moved to Manchester to take up a Degree in Social Sciences. As it was her practice she immediately set out to create links and help organising the local Black community. Together with Ada Phillips, Kath Locke and other women, they founded the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op.

The Co-op was re-formed as Abasindi Co-operative in 1980, after Olive’s death.

In her paper: Silent Warriors: The Women of Abasindi Co-operative, Diane Watt PhD, describes the origins of Abasindi and mentions Olive Morris.

In Manchester, these forms of political activism included women such as the late Ada Phillips, Kath Locke and Olive Morris who was at that time a student at Manchester University and a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). […]

[The Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative] was established to create a self-help educational programme within the community geared especially to the needs of young mothers. From this basis of concern there developed an office skills training programme and opportunities for young people to become involved with various community based initiatives. In turn, this situation exposed the author and other young women to a range of political actions on behalf of the community.

During 1979 the members of the Black Women’s Co-operative undertook a lengthy and critical review of the organisation’s achievements and developments. The women concluded that in spite of some of the activities, the project was not as effective as it should be in significantly involving black women in the development of their community. Hence the need to widen the Co-operative’s activities and areas of interest. Furthermore, it was agreed that the group should show itself to be both autonomous and self-determining.

With these objectives in mind, the membership decided to reform as Abasindi. On the 1st January 1980, Kath Locke, Duduzile Lethlaku, Yvonne Hypolite, Maria Noble, Popgee Manderson, Madge Gordon, Abena Braithwaite, Shirley Inniss, and the author were among the local women who founded the Abasindi Women’s Co-op. Two of the women were born in this country of English and Nigerian parentage and the others were from Barbados, Trinidad, Aruba, South Africa and Jamaica. For a number of years, Abasindi was based in the Moss Side People’s Centre, formerly St. Mary’s Primary school and now the site of a privately run children’s nursery. The People’s Centre at that time also housed a number of community groups including the Moss Side Adventure Playgroup, The Family Advice Centre and a project for young people. Approximately one year after Abasindi was formed, Moss Side’s reputation as an inner city area with particular social problems was the subject of much media attention. This was in 1981 when alongside cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, London and Liverpool; it became the site of four days of social disturbance.


Brixton Black Panthers Movement

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Olive Morris was an active member of the Brixton Black Panther Movement until the group dissolved and reformed into a number of organisations working on specific aspects within the Black struggle.

Black Panther rally

Picture: Olive Morris speaking at a rally against police brutality outside Brixton Library (ca. 1972)

The Black Panther and the Black Power Movements in the UK developed from the work of the Universal Coloured Peoples Association. Several American Black Panthers and radical activists visited the UK and gave lectures in London, including Malcom X (1965), Stokely Carmicheal and Angela Davis (both in 1967). Their message struck a chord in second generation Black youth, and gave impulse to the formation of a local Movement.

The British Black Panther Movement, although inspired by the ideology of the US Black Panther Party, was a different type of organisation that responded to the specific reality of Black people in the UK. As an organised movement it was short lived, and its main period of activity was from 1970-1973. Don Lett, a member of the Movement explains the difference in an interview by Greg Whitfield, published by

It all seems so easy now, the very word just rolls off your tongue, “Black British”, but for awhile back there, it wasn’t so simple you know? Fundamentally the Black British and the Black American experience was different, right from source. Black Americans were dragged, screaming and kicking, from the shores of Africa to an utterly hostile America, whilst my parents, they bought a ticket on the ‘The Windrush’ bound for London! So, right off, you have it there, a major fundamental difference. So even though I attended the Black Panther meetings, proudly wearing my Angela Davis badge, read “Soul on Ice”, there was still so much more that we needed to do. It’s true that we became aware, became conscious in many respects and that was partly due to those Panther ideologies, but the total relevance of that movement just didn’t translate into the Black British experience.

The Black Panther Movement in the UK organised itself in groups based around a particular location or area, and each group organised and run their work and activities independently but overseen by a common centre core. This central core – the intelectual leadership of the movement made up of university students – organised the setting up of local groups in areas whith a large Black population, and recruited local working class youth that constituted the local core.

Many members of the Brixton group went on to become inspiring community leaders and became notorious figures in their field of work. The Brixton Panthers had their headquarters at Shakespeare Road in a house that was bought with money donated by John Berger when he won the Bookers Prize.

Here are some of the members of the Brixton Black Panthers:

Althea Jones – medical doctor
Farukh Dhondi – broadcaster and writer
David Udah – church minister
Darcus Howe – broadcaster
Keith Spencer – community activist
Leila Hussain – community activist
Olive Morris – community activist
Liz Turnbull – community activist
Mala Sen – author
Beverly Bryan – academic and writer
Linton Kwesi Johnson – writer and musician
Neil Kenlock – photographer and founder of Choice FM London

This quote from an interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson published in 1998 by Classical Reggae Interviews, describes the work and ethos of the Brixton Black Panthers:

It was an organization that came in to combat racial oppression, to combat police brutality, to combat injustices in the courts against black people, to combat discrimination at the place of work, to combat the mis-education of black youths and black young people.

The Black Panther movement was not a separatist organization like Louis Farrakhan’s ‘Nation Of Islam’. We didn’t believe in anything like that. Our slogan was ‘Black Power – People’s Power’…

…and we also realized that we had to live in the same world as white people and that if we wanted to make some changes we had to win some support from the progressive section of the white population.

We published a newspaper which we would sell on the streets. I used to do that myself. Every Saturday morning I had to go to Brixton Market, Croydon Market, Ballem Market, wherever…(…).

…We would organize campaigns around specific incidents where there was some racial injustice involving the police and so on. We had educational classes for the Youth Section (I was member of the Youth Section) where we studied Black History, Politics and Culture.

And as a matter of fact it was through my involvement with the Black Panther movement I discovered Black Literature read a book called ‘The Souls Of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. Dubois and got inspired to write poetry.

When in time the Black Workers Movement dissolved, its members used the experience they have gained to set up new organisations, such as Black Workers Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Olive Morris was a founding member of the BWG and OWAAD, and maintained close ties to both organisations throughout her life, even while she was based in Manchester.

If you or someone you know was involved with the Brixton Black Panthers and have stories or pictures of that time that you are willing to share, please use the comments box below to get in touch, in particular if you have any memories of Olive Morris work in the Movement.


Squatters Handbook

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In 1979, the year of Olive Morris death, the Advisory Service for Squatters published the sixth edition of their Squatters Handbook. The cover of the booklet was graced with a picture of Olive climbing onto the roof of 121 Railton Road. This picture was taken during one of the attempted evictions of the squat, and several other pictures and news items about this particular eviction also appeared in the south London press.

Squatters Handbook

Despite living side by side and having cordial relations, Black and White squatters did not organise themselves together. Liz Obi remembers that when they squatted 121 Railton Road, some white squatters came to help them turn on the gas and the electricity. During evictions some women from the ‘White Women Centre’ also came to show support, but that was as far as the relationship went. Black activists at the time were focused on the many specific issues affecting the Black community (police violence, discrimination in education and workplace, etc). The absence of joint activity might explain why in most accounts of the Brixton squatting movement written in later years, there are no references to the early Black squats of the 70s.

However, as the cover of the Squatters Handbook shows, in the late 70s Olive Morris was a well known and respected figure amongst White squatters.


The Heart of the Race

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Quote from:
The Heart of the Race. Black Women’s Lives in Britain
By Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe (Virago, 1985)

Beverley Bryan also spoke at the ceremony in which a Council building was given Olive Morris’s name. She now lives in Jamaica where she is Head of the Department of Educational Studies, University of the West Indies, Kingston.

Olive Morris

One of the founder members of the BWG (Black Women Group) was Olive Morris, who in her very short lifetime made an invaluable contribution to Brixton BGW, OWAAD (Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent) and the Black communities in both Brixton and Manchester. Like Claudia Jones, she represents the kind of Black women who, over the years, have thrown themselves into the struggle in this country and made an indelible, if anonymous, mark.

Olive Morris’s short life was similar in most respects to the lives of the majority of West Indian women living in Britain today. She came to Britain at the age of eight to live with her parents, and went to a secondary modern in south London where she experienced all the inequalities and injustices of the British education system. She left at sixteen with no qualifications, but undeterred, she went on to college to study ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels while at the same time holding down a full-time job.

It was during this phase of her life, when she was only seventeen years old, that Olive carried out her first conscious political act, one which was to led her into organised political activity for the rest of her life. This was in 1969, when she went to the aid of someone who was being harassed in the street by the police. His crime was to have been driving an expensive car, which the police found suspicious enough to warrant an arrest. As a result of her intervention, Olive herself was arrested and taken to the local police station, where she was made to strip and was brutally assaulted. The incident did not intimidate her, however. It simply strengthened her opposition to racism and injustice.

Olive went on to join the Black Panther movement, and it was here that she began to develop the political ideology which would determine her future actions. She gave a total commitment to the organisation’s work and development, and participated in nearly all of the battles which formed part of the community’s everyday life. She was in tune with the needs of the people, and always showed herself willing to take the initiative and act. This was certainly the case with the squatters movement in Brixton, when she organised with others like herself to squat because there was nowehere to live and no hope for a council flat. She became well known in the community for her willingness to help other Black people who were facing difficulties, whether with the schools, the police, housing, social security officials or the courts – whatever the issue, she was never too busy to offer support. For Olive, it was not just a case of doing things for those who couldn’t do it for themselves: it was her way of involving people in the struggle, showing by her own example the will to resist and to challenge.

After the decline of the Black Panther movement, Olive worked with some other Black women in the area ad with a group of brothers to set up Sarbarr Bookshop, the first Black self-help community bookshop in south London. During the same period, she helped form the Brixton Black Women’s Group, to which she made a lasting contribution. The political perspective she brought to the group helped it to develop a coherent political ideology, based on the needs of ordinary Black people in the community, which made clear links with other anti-imperialist struggles. She worked relentlessly to translate these ideas into practice, and most of her political work was done at grassroots level.

In 1975, she went to Manchester University to study for a social science degree. This in itself was an important step for Olive, who believed in education for the people. For her, going to university was not a status symbol, but an example to many young Black people of how to fight and win against a system which tries to push us to the bottom of the education pile and force us to compete against each other.

Unlike many students, Olive did not separate her work at the university from the struggles which were being waged in the rest of the community. In her work with the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group, which she helped to set up, she participated fully in the black community’s battles in Moss Side. Committed to furthering education rights for Black people, she campaigned with Black mothers for better schooling for their children and helped to set up a supplementary school and a Black bookshop in the area. Because she was an internationalist, she also worked at the university within the National Co-ordinating Committee of Overseas Students. She provided an essential link between international, community and women’s organisations, drawing the parallels between our experiences here and in the Third World.

In 1978, Olive visited China. The trip was of great significance to her, for she saw China as one of the countries which Third World peoples could learn a lot from, and which could serve as a model for us in self-help and self-reliance. The lessons she learn there were shared with everyone she worked with on her return. Sharing knowledge was always her practice.

Olive had always identified the relationships between the struggles of people in the Third World and those of the white working class. She recognised that it was a fight which had to be won through the contribution of both groups, and that we would need to work together if we were to bring about any meaningful changes. It was this awareness which was her greatest contribution to the political development of those she worked with.

When she returned to Brixton in 1978 after completing her studies, the work she had begun while in Manchester to launch OWAAD was taken up by other women in the Brixton Black Women’s Group. It was then that she began to suffer the symptoms of the cancer which killed her within the year. In her fight against leukemia, she displayed the same courage she has shown throughout her lifetime, and when she died on 12 July 1979, at the age of twenty-seven, she had already made her mark. She was mourned by all sections of the Black community, and by many others from outside it whose lives she had touched.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level. This made others very weary of her, she was so obviously a fighter. I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went at him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.

She would take anybody on like that, even people in organisations if she thought that someone needed to expose their hypocrisy for mounting slogans and living a lie. Because of that, a lot of them saw her as a pain in the neck and she was too! She’d fight them physically, if it was necessary. If you moved with Olive, you couldn’t be a weak heart. She gave a lot of support to so many sisters though, when they came under pressure from the brothers at meeting or wherever. She was a real example, You didn’t see it then, of course, but that fearlessness of hers, and that genuine commitment she showed to the work she did made her stand out, made her special.

I remember when Olive was in Manchester, I went up to an education meeting she was organising with the Manchester Black Women’s group, and it struck me at the time how at home she was away from home. She had gone up to the university to study, but she made contact with people so easily that before you knew it she was right in there with the Black women in Moss Side, organising with them, taking things on. She could easily have found a student clique on the campus, but instead she sought out her people and just carried on the work we’d been doing in Brixton. But then she always was hot on personal commitment – not just showing willing, but showing determination. Her life is a kind of symbol to the people who knew her. People like Olive inspire you to resist.”

At her memorial ceremony in Brixton a few weeks after her death, several hundred people came to pay testimony to her remarkable courage and her fighting spirit. Those who knew her were left with her vision of a new society, and the lasting memory of one more Black woman who was not afraid to fight back.


Sabaar Bookshop

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The first person I ever spoke to who had known Olive Morris was Mr Oniel Williams. He told me there was some information published about Olive Morris in a book entitled: The Heart of the Race. Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe – Virago, 1985). The book is out of print and Brixton Library’s copy had gone missing. Liz Obi, who has a copy of the book, kindly lend me some photocopies. A transcript of the section on Olive Morris is posted separately.

Oniel told me he used to frequent a Black bookshop on 121 Railton Road where he had met Olive Morris. The book shop was called Sabaar, but I have also found references to it with other spellings: Sabbaar and Sarbbarr. Sabaar Bookshop was opened at 121 Railton Road, once Olive and Liz (the first squatters to live there) moved to another squat down at 64 Railton Road. The squat at 121 was then used as premises for the Brixton Black Panther Movement, and was soon developed into a Black advice center and bookshop. Olive was involved in setting up and running it.

Sabaar Bookshop is sometimes referenced as the first Black Bookshop in Brixton, but the first Black bookshop in Brixton had been Unity Bookshop that in 1973 had been burned to the ground when a firebomb was placed in the letter box. Sabaar Bookshop filled in the gap, but I haven’t been able to find out the exact dates it was open at 121 Railton Road, or any other information about it.

The importance of these bookshops is described in “We Shall Not Be Terrorized Out of Existence”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops by Colin A. Beckles (Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 Sep., 1998)

Finally there were bookshops cum advice centers, such as the black people’s information centres, BLF’s Grassroots Storefront and BWM’s Unity Bookshop and the weekly or monthly newspapers: Black Voice (BUFP), Grassroots (BLF), Freedom News(BP: Black Panthers) Frontline (BBC Brixton), Uhuru (BPFM: Black People’s Freedom Movement) BPFM Weekly and the BWAC Weekly (Black Workers Action Committee) and the less frequent and more theoretical journal Black Liberator. A theory can be purported that these small publications paved the way for stronger forms of black literary self-expression in the form of poetry and the novel. The connection is valid since this was to happen a few years later in this decade of the black journal.

The Radical Bookshop History website lists Sabbaar as a Black bookshop active during the late 70s and early 80s at 378 Coldharbour Lane, where the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage and then the Black Cultural Archives were subsequently located during the 80s and 90s. So it seems that Sabbar was moved from 121 Railton Road to Colharbour Lane at some point in the late 70s. In the same website there is reference to a later bookshop at 121 Railton Road, run by anarchists and feminists from 1982 onwards (possibly until the final closure of the squat in 1999).

Do you remember anything about Sabaar or Unity Bookshops, or were you involved in the running of these bookshops? Perhaps you still have copies of some of the publications that they sold, or have a picture of the shop at the time.

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