Olive Morris

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Olive Morris
Olive Morris died 1979.jpg
Born(1952-06-26)26 June 1952
St Catherine, Jamaica
Died12 July 1979(1979-07-12) (aged 27)
Lambeth, London, England, UK[1]
EducationLondon College of Printing
Victoria University of Manchester[1]
OccupationCommunity leader and activist

Olive Elaine Morris (26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) was a Jamaican-born British-based community leader and activist in the feminist, Black nationalist, and squatters' rights campaigns of the 1970s. Morris was a key organiser in the Black Women's Movement in the United Kingdom, co-founding the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in London and support groups in Manchester. She joined the British Black Panthers and squatted 121 Railton Road in Brixton.

Morris died at the age of 27. Her life and work have been widely commemorated, both by official organisations – Lambeth Council named a building after her – and by activist groups. She features on lists of inspirational Black British women and in June 2020 was brought to wider attention with a Google Doodle.

Early life[edit]

Olive Morris was born in 1952 in Harewood, St Catherine, Jamaica, to Doris Lowena (née Moseley) and Vincent Nathaniel Morris.[2] As part of the Windrush generation, the family emigrated to England when she was nine.[1] She had three brothers and two sisters, and lived in South London for most of her life,[3] attending Heathbrook Primary School, Lavender Hill Girls' Secondary School, and Tulse Hill Secondary School.[1] Leaving school without qualifications, she later studied at the London College of Printing (now named the London College of Communication).[1]

Adult life and activism[edit]

Mistreatment following Clement Gomwalk incident[edit]

On 15 November 1969, Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk was confronted by police while parked outside "Desmond's Hip City",[4] the first Black record shop in Brixton[5] The police did not believe him when he said he was a diplomat. Accused of stealing his car under the "sus law" (suspected person), the police dragged him out of his Mercedes car to interrogate him and continued to beat him as a crowd formed around them to witness the brutality.[2] Local journalist Aymo Martin Tajo later stated that Morris "broke through the crowd to the scuffle" and "tried to physically stop the police from beating the Nigerian", the police reaction being to beat her also.[4] However, Morris's account was that she did not arrive until after the diplomat had been taken away by the police. She was then 17 years old.

The situation with the police escalated after the crowd began to confront them about their brutal treatment of Gomwalk. Morris recalled her friend being dragged by police into the record store, shouting "I've done nothing". She did not state how she got involved but does state that she was brutally beaten. As she was dressed in men’s clothes, and had very short hair, the police at that point believed she was a young man, one of them saying when challenged, "She ain’t no girl".[6] Morris’s account goes on to describe her treatment in prison. She said she was forced to strip and was threatened with rape in police custody: "They all made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl. A male cop holding a billy club said, ‘Now prove you're a real woman.’" Referencing his billy club (or baton) he stated: "Look it's the right colour and the right size for you. Black cunt!"[4]

Morris's brother Basil described her injuries from the incident, saying that he "could hardly recognize her face, they beat her so badly." She was arrested, fined £10 and given a suspended sentence. The charges were: assault on the police, threatening behaviour, and possession of dangerous weapons.[1][4]

Black Panther Movement[edit]

In the early 1970s, Morris became a member of the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement (later the Black Workers movement), alongside Linton Kwesi Johnson and Clovis Reid.[1] This movement was inspired by the Black Panther Movement in the United States, but was unaffiliated with them. In August 1972 she and a friend, Liz Obi, planned to visit the American Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who was living in Algeria on the run from an attempted murder charge,[7] but they became stranded in Morocco.[1]

Brixton Black Women's Group[edit]

Morris co-founded the Brixton Black Women's Group in 1974.[1][8][1] Within this group, she and other members rallied to critically explore the experience of women in the Black Panther Party.[9] The overall purpose of the group was to raise consciousness so the women could communicate with each other and talk about their daily lives, putting this understanding into a political framework. The Brixton Black Women's Group pushed for more transparency and unity in their community. Eventually, the group dissolved and transformed into numerous specific groups that were focused on increasing the awareness of the Black struggle.

Squatting in Brixton[edit]

Morris participated in other activities, such as squatting buildings to establish self-help community spaces.[1] She squatted at 121 Railton Road, Brixton, with her friend Liz Obi in 1973. This squat became a hub of political activism and hosted community groups such as Black People against State Harassment. The building was also the site of the Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first Black community bookshops.[1] It was set up by a group of Black men and women in Brixton that included Morris.[10] The site subsequently became an anarchist project, known as the 121 Centre, which existed until its eviction in 1999.[1] During the 1970s she worked alongside Leila Hassan running Race Today's "Basement Sessions" at 165 Railton Road, where art, culture and politics were discussed.[11][12][13]

Manchester[edit]

Morris studied at Manchester University between 1975 and 1978. Her activism did not halt while she was away from London. She co-founded the Manchester Black Women's Co-operative and the Black Women's Mutual Aid Group with activists in Manchester such as Kath Locke and Elouise Edwards.[1][14][15] She also helped to establish a supplementary school after campaigning with local Black parents for better education provision for their children.[16]

Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent[edit]

She was a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in London. OWAAD held its first conference at the Abeng Centre on Gresham Road in Brixton, a centre that Morris had helped to establish along with Elaine Holness and other members of the community.[1][10][16] Along with the Brixton Black Women's Group it was the first organisation for black women in the United Kingdom.[2]

Death[edit]

Morris became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. When she returned to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She underwent treatment, which was unsuccessful. She died on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas' Hospital, Lambeth, and was buried in Streatham Vale Cemetery. She was 27 years old.[1]

Recognition and legacy[edit]

Olive Morris House in Brixton Hill

Lambeth Council named one of its key buildings after her in 1986.[17] The naming of the building followed the Brixton riot the previous year, triggered by the shooting of Cherry Groce by the police while searching for her son, Michael Groce, in connection with a firearms offence.[18] Some saw it as an attempt by the council to appease the Black community or, in a more positive spin, to show the council's future commitment to reconciliation.[4] A play area and garden was also named after Morris in Myatt's Fields.[1]

Morris is depicted on the B£1 note of the Brixton Pound, a local currency.[19] Ana Laura López de la Torre launched the "Remember Olive Morris" blog in 2007.[4] As López de la Torre started to team up with other women, the following year the Remembering Olive Collective was started,[1][3] which soon included African-American scholar Tanisha C. Ford[4]. In 2019 this was re-launched as ROC 2.0, as the council building had been scheduled for demolition, and the collective wanted to ensure that Morris would be remembered even when the building named after her is gone.[20]

The Olive Morris memorial award was launched in 2011 to give bursaries to young Black women.[1] In 2017, a huge mural entitled "Say it loud" (a reference to the song of that title) appeared in Blenheim Gardens, Brixton, part of the "WatchThisSpace" initiative; it was painted by the South African artist Breeze Yoko and draws on his character "Boniswa", while also paying homage to Morris.[21][22][23]

In 2018, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of most women gaining the right to vote, The Voice newspaper listed Olive Morris – alongside Kathleen Wrasama, Connie Mark, Fanny Eaton, Diane Abbott, Lilian Bader, Margaret Busby, and Mary Seacole – among eight Black women who have contributed to the development of Britain.[24] She was also named by the Evening Standard on a list of 14 "Inspirational Black British women throughout history" alongside Mary Seacole, Connie Mark, Margaret Busby, Diane Abbott, Claudia Jones, Adelaide Hall, Joan Armatrading, Tessa Sanderson, Doreen Lawrence, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Sharon White, Malorie Blackman, and Zadie Smith.[25] She was recognised with a Google Doodle in the UK on 26 June 2020 to mark what would have been her 68th birthday.[26]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Allotey, Emma (24 May 2012). "Morris, Olive Elaine (1952–1979)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Archived from the original on 10 August 2019. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Tsang, Amie (26 June 2020) [30 October 2019]. "Overlooked No More: How Olive Morris Fought for Black Women's Rights in Britain". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 26 June 2020. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  3. ^ a b Ruiz, Sheila (16 October 2009). "Do you remember Olive Morris?". BBC News. Archived from the original on 16 September 2016. Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Ford, Tanisha C. (2016) "Finding Olive Morris in the Archive", The Black Scholar, 46:2, 5–18, DOI: 10.1080/00064246.2016.1147937.
  5. ^ Public Record Office. "Moving Here | the Gallery | Celebration, Music & Dance". webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 6 November 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  6. ^ "Olive Morris and Sexualized Police Brutality" in R. Kelley, S. Tuck, eds., The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States (Springer, 2016), pp. 215–218
  7. ^ Rosenzweig, David (24 February 2001). "Ex-Panther Says He Saw Cleaver Kill a Man". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 25 April 2017. Retrieved 5 March 2017.
  8. ^ Osbourne, Angelina (2 August 2020). "Black History Month: The Power of Olive Morris". Fawcett Society. Archived from the original on 23 April 2020. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  9. ^ Hunter, Virgillo (9 February 2020). "Olive Elaine Morris (1952–1979)". Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  10. ^ a b Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain, Verso Books, 14 August 2018.
  11. ^ "5 British Black Panther women whose names you should know". gal-dem. 21 April 2017. Archived from the original on 6 June 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  12. ^ "Stories from Railton Road". Brixton Advice Centre. 5 July 2015. Archived from the original on 6 June 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  13. ^ W, Perri (9 March 2019). "A tribute to Olive Morris". Brits + Pieces. Archived from the original on 6 June 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  14. ^ Chidgey, Red (25 July 2010). "Do you remember Olive Morris?". Red Pepper. Archived from the original on 27 December 2013. Retrieved 26 December 2013.
  15. ^ "Abasindi Co-operative – Black History Month". Archives+. 23 October 2018. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  16. ^ a b "Black Cultural Archives" Archived 28 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Olive Morris Administrative / Biographical History, 1977–2009.
  17. ^ "Olive Morris House". Lambeth Council. Archived from the original on 4 October 2016. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  18. ^ “28 September On this day: 1985 Riots in Brixton after police shooting”, BBC, 28 September 2005
  19. ^ "Who was the woman on the wall?". BBC News. 26 June 2020. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  20. ^ "Olive Morris collective says memorial must not be lost". Brixton Blog. 21 June 2019. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  21. ^ "Brixton Bugle May 2017". Issuu. Retrieved 26 June 2020.
  22. ^ "Brixton: Meet Boniswa". Brixton Blog. 25 April 2017. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  23. ^ ""Boniswa" by Breeze Yoko in Cape Town". StreetArtNews. 25 August 2016. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  24. ^ Sinclair, Leah (6 February 2018)"Suffrage 100: The Black Women Who Changed British History" Archived 19 July 2019 at the Wayback Machine, The Voice,.
  25. ^ Chambers, Georgia (11 October 2018), "Inspirational black British women throughout history" Archived 4 September 2019 at the Wayback Machine, Evening Standard.
  26. ^ Barr, Sabrina (26 June 2020). "Who was Olive Morris, the activist who campaigned to improve the lives of the black community?". The Independent. Retrieved 26 June 2020.

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