Jeanne Rathbone

Olive Morris black activist

Posted in Olive Morris 1952-1979 Black activist Brixton by sheelanagigcomedienne on March 4, 2019

Since I started my Notabale Women of Lavender walks I discovered this vibrant young black activist was said to have lived on Lavender Hill when she first came over from Jamaica to join her parents in 1962 aged 9. However, I since ascertained through the Metroploitian arhives that the Morris family lived at 7 Milford Street which was demolished and was off the Wandsworth Road. I am including Olive in my Notable Women of Lavender Hill walk as she attended Lavender Hill Girls School. I have spoken with her nephew Ferron Morris.

It was not unusual for the Windrush generation for parents to come ahead leaving the children with grandparents till they could sort out accommodation and jobs. I knew the name from Olive Morris House 18 Brixton Hill which is Lambeth’s Customer Service Centre. There one can make inquiries about benefits, council tax, rents and repairs, housing , school admission documents, Freedom Pass and parking permits.  It was remodelled in 2009 when the revamped building was renamed the Civic Centre but Olive’s name was reinstated. There is currently some controversy about its future.  http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2019/02/brixtons-olive-morris-house-negotiations-hit-the-buffers/

Olive was an amazing fiery activist from her teens and packed so much into her short life.  She died tragically young in 1979 aged 27. I went to see the Olive Morris Archive at the Minet Library in Camberwell. Seeing the photos, letters flyers and papers etc forty years on, inevitably, makes one think what she might have done and what role would she have played in British political life.

The main sources I have used for details of Olive’s life come from the Remembering Olive Collective, thanks to the wonderful work of artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre and Liz Obi, who was another young activist and friend of Olive’s. They established the Remembering Olive Collective. In 2009 ROC launched the Olive Morris Collection at Lambeth Archives. https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/ and Beverley Bryan, Stella. Dadzie, and Susanne Scafe, eds., The heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain (1985), included an entry on Olive and Beverley also attended Lavender Hill School.

The Olive Morris Collection at the Minet Library contains some great photos from photographer Neil Kenlock as well as Olive’s own photos and memorabilia which includes her passport. The collection consists of contributions from her friend Liz and Mike McColgan her partner.  This was launched in October 2009

There is also and item by Dr Angelina Osborn for the Fawcett Society.     https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/black-history-month-power-olive-morris,   rememberolivemorris

Olive on Brixtonpound BrixtonPound1http://brixtonpound.org/showmemoney

Olive was born on 26 June 1952 in Harewood, St Catherine’s, Jamaica, the daughter of Vincent Nathaniel Morris and his wife, Doris, née Moseley. When she was nine years old, she and her brother, Basil, left their maternal grandmother and joined her mother and father in Battersea in 1962 but not on Lavender Hill as is erroneosly repeated on internet items on her. They lived nearby just of Wandsworth Road. There were four further siblings. Olive’s father became a forklift operator and her mother was a factory shop steward.

Olive attended Heathbrook Primary School and then Lavender Hill Girls’ Secondary School which was close by to where the lived. She finished her secondary education at Tulse Hill Secondary School. She was obviously a very able pupil but 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. She studied at the London College of Printing.

I lived at 108A Lavender Hill (one-time home of John Burns MP) briefly at this time with my sister and her husband in 64/65. In the seventies I was a Labour Governor of the school and became aware of how these girls were not been properly served by the education system. I can but wonder if I ever passed Olive in the street as she walked to school.

The late 1960s and 1970s were a particularly challenging time for Britain’s post-war African, African-Caribbean, and Asian communities. There was increased tension between police and the black community (epitomized by the ‘sus’ laws, that is, the laws allowing police officers to stop and search people on mere suspicion that they intended to commit a crime), and attacks by fascist groups such as the National Front, as well as discrimination in housing and employment.

Olive became a tireless organizer and fighter against racism, and also sexism and other forms of oppression. In an early example of her political activism she intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat Mr Clement Gowalk for a parking offence in Brixton in 1969. Olive came upon the scene when Mr Gowalk had already been taken away but intervened when her friends who protested .  She was physically assaulted and racially abused by the police and arrested, along with six other people, fined £10, and given a three-month suspended sentence for two years. The charges comprised assault on the police, threatening behaviour, and possession of dangerous weapons.

Olive’s account of this is quite shocking to read about the treatment, brutality and abusive racist and misogynist language used by the police against a teenager. The vulgarity, misogyny, and physical violence turned into a full-fledged sexual assault. Olive’s account was printed in ”Black Panther News Service in May 1970 and analysed in this article by Anne-Marie Angelo ‘Any name that has power’. https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/7264

“They all made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl.” After Morris disrobed, “The one with the truncheon said, ‘Now prove you are a real woman.’ He pointed at the truncheon in front of me and said, ‘Look it’s the right colour and the right size for you. Black cunt!’  Olive who, “was crying because I was in terrible pain,” asked to see a doctor. A police doctor appeared and told Olive that she was bruised and gave her two pills to take.

It seems extraordinary that a police doctor could accept this clear evidence of the assault of a teenage girl and then walk away and leave her with those who had assaulted her knowing that she was going to be charged. Olive said they  “continued arguing about my sex. Another said I should strip and get on the table and give them a little demo.”  At the end of this harrowing episode of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, Olive remembered, “My particulars were taken and I was charged with assaulting a policeman. I was then told to plead guilty when the case was called; and I was let out through the back way of the station at about 6 o’clock”.

Downtrodden but not defeated, Olive  found her way to nearby King’s College Hospital where she obtained treatment for her injuries. As she received treatment at King’s College that night, Black Panther photographer Neil Kenlock headed to the hospital where he took a photograph of Olive which provided evidence of her tenacity. She saved the photograph, scrawling a note on the back: “Taken at about 10 PM on 15 Nov 69 after the police had beating me up (at Kings College Hospital.)

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.”  I think I know which version we believe.

This awful experience of the police and their racist, misogynistic, bigoted attitudes and sheer brutality surely propelled Olive into action in fighting racism and injustice. She seemed to become fearless in confronting the police.

Olive early

Olive after the police assault.

In the early 170s she became a member of the youth section of the Black Panther movement (later the Black Workers movement), along with others such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Clovis Reid, and Farrukh Dhondy.

Olive and American Panthers

Olive with American Black Panther visitors

From the Heart of the Race:  ‘ 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’…  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.”

But teenage Olive was also curious about the world and she liked fashion. She loved jewellery, especially bangles. Ana Laura said : 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.

She was  interested in traveling as she was an internationalist. She visited Germany in 1971. In August 1972 she and her friend, Liz Obi, planned to visit the American Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, who was in exile in Algeria, but they became stranded in Morocco. There is an account of this trip in the archives.

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.

Gail Lewis talks about the the group and the similarities and differences with mainly white feminist groups, especially the wider focus of  poverty, racism, housing, education suss laws etc  http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/sisterhood/clips/activism/consciousness-raising/143112.html

Olive along with Liz Obi played a major role in the squatting movement in Brixton which is why we now have the iconic photo of her climbing back in after eviction in the squatters handbook from that time.

She squatted at 121 Railton Road, Brixton, with Liz in 1973. The squat became an organizing centre for community groups such as Black People against State Harassment as well as housing Sabaar Bookshop, which was one of the first black community bookshops. 121 Railton Road remained a social centre and a hub for the squatting movement until it was closed in 1999.

Olive and squatter book

OLIVE MORRIS, SQUATTERS’ HANDBOOKhttps://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/olive-morris-squatters-handbook/

The 1979 Squatters’ Handbook published by the Advisory Service for Squatters with chapters on law, moving in and eviction. The cover shows the black community activist Olive Morris scaling a building. Olive actively campaigned for squatting and opened the 121 Railton Road squat in 1973 with Liz Obi, which later became the Sabaar Bookshop and an anarchist centre in the 1980s.

There is an account of the squatting movement and a section on Brixton.

https://en.squat.net/2014/05/20/squatting-in-england-heritage-prospects/

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 Center” 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 1970s.

In July 1974 Morris returned to Jamaica for six weeks.

Olive in Jamaica

The following year she began a degree in economics and social science at Manchester University.

Heart of the Race :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.

She visited Italy and Northern Ireland in 1976. In 1977 she visited China and wrote a piece entitled ‘A sister’s visit to China’ which explored the role of China in anti-imperialist struggles. It was published in Speak Out!, the Brixton Black Women’s Group newsletter.

The Heart of the Race ”  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.”

In 1978 she, along with Stella Dadzie and other women, founded the Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). OWAAD held its first conference at the Abeng centre on Gresham Road in Brixton, a centre that Olive had helped to establish along with Elaine Holness and other members of the community.

This article from the Guardian in 2014 which sets out the experiences of women from the West Indies includes Olive. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/06/black-women-in-britain-from-the-romans-to-the-windrush

Olive graduated in 1978 and returned to Brixton, working in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre where she was involved in the campaign to scrap the ‘sus’ laws. She lived at 2 Talma Road, Brixton. She was also a burgeoning writer and co-wrote a piece on the Anti-Nazi League with her partner, Mike McColgan. ‘Has the Anti-Nazi League got it right on racism?’ was published in a flyer for the Brixton Ad-Hoc Committee against Police Repression in 1978 and criticized the strategy of focusing on fighting fascism, while largely ignoring the impact of institutionalized racism: the role of the police, the education system, and so on.

Beverely Bryan :“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.

Olive became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. On her return to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent treatment which was unsuccessful. She died on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas’s Hospital, Lambeth, and was buried in Streatham Vale cemetery. She was survived by her partner, Mike McColga. Her premature death was a shock to her friends, family, and political colleagues.

Olive Morris on the Brixton Pound

http://brixtonpound.org/blog/2015/06/25/olive-morris/     Several people asked how Olive Morris came to feature on the first edition Brixton Pound note. The reason for this is very simple. When we began designing the currency back in 2009 we asked lots of people from Brixton who they thought should go on the notes. We had a stall at the Lambeth Country Show and on online voting poll. Olive’s name kept coming up.

As we looked into it more, it seemed Olive Morris was a brilliant choice to be the first person to go on a Brixton Pound. She was an activist – campaigning on many social justice issues including racism, unemployment, police violence and squatters rights. She was also a member of the British Black Panthers and a socialist and she supported anti-colonial struggles internationally. 

Money and power are at the heart of many of the issues that Olive campaigned on. Just take a look at our national currency, sterling, and look at the images that are chosen and the symbols they represent. If you go to the British Museum you can also see notes issued by the British Government in the British Colonies and they look very similar to the notes that we still use today.

The Brixton Pound deliberately chose images and symbols that break tradition with this colonialist past. Olive Morris was a disrupter and we are proud to put her image on the first issue of the notes in the place that is usually reserved for the Queen. We hope this may encourage more people to look at the inequalities sustained and perpetuated by our current financial system and challenge them, just as Olive Morris did. 

Since putting Olive Morris on the Brixton Pound we have had many people come and talk to us who remember Olive. They have told us a bit about her and her life. We hope that, alongside organisations like the Remembering Olive Collective, we can help keep her legacy alive.

Let us spread the word about the inspiring black activist Olive Morris who came to live in Battersea as a nine year old then as an activist in Brixton and at university in Manchester but whose legacy is global.

There was a Black Power Women of Brixton Walk Sun Mar 10 2019 which included Olive info@blackhistorywalks.co.ukBlack people in Britain fought for civil/equal rights as hard as their American counterparts. The role of women in this struggle has been severely marginalised. This walk will show the life, times, and activities of numerous African/Caribbean women in Brixton. From the 1950’s to the 1980’s Black women supported and led the anti-racist fight in housing, education, employment, media and politics. The walk covered:

This article appeared in the South London Press in August 30th 2019. Toby , the editor, had said he would over time include some of the Notable Women of Lavender Hill and most of this is from my blog on her. There is one error resulting from mis-transcription which states that Olive lived at 108a Lavender Hill. She didn’t but I did!  However, it’s great   that Olive’s memory continues for new generations.

Olive in SLP memories august 2019Olive SLP article 30th August 2019

My Notable Women of Lavender Hill walk on Sunday 26th May 2019 included Olive.  This walk is one of the Battersea Society contributions to the Wandsworth Heritage Festival 2019.There were no blue plaques to any of these women last year when I started these walks and now there are three.

3 Responses

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  1. Kuda Kuziwa said, on May 4, 2019 at 8:16 pm

    I’ve been obsessed with Olive Martins since seeing her portrait at the NPG last winter. I really enjoyed reading this and learning new things about her.

    • sheelanagigcomedienne said, on May 10, 2019 at 9:58 am

      Hi Kuda, she was an inspiring young women who died tragically young. One can only wonder what she might have achieved and other causes that she would have espoused with the same passion, fearlessness and determination. I wish somebody wiould do a bio play about her.

      • Kuda Kuziwa said, on May 24, 2019 at 8:52 am

        Let’s connect on it because I’d really like to do just that!


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