Black British women pioneers: Olive Morris

In this new series, we will shine a light on Black British women pioneers as there is a lack of black history, specifically Black British history, being taught in mainstream and compulsory education in the U.K. Having studied the U.S. civil rights movement myself at AS-level History in further education, I still had (and have) lesser knowledge on a greater amount of Black British history figures that are not taught and celebrated in equal, or any, measure. The series begins with Olive Morris, after Google set its 'google doodle' homepage to a tribute to the activist on what would have been her 68th birthday on June 26.

Who are they?

Olive Morris was an activist in Britain’s feminist, black nationalist and squatters’ rights campaign in the 1970s. Born in Jamaica, she was part of the Windrush generation, emigrating to South London with her family when she was aged 9. Morris studied at the London College of Communication, and later at Manchester University where she was involved with the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative, the Black Women’s Mutual Aid group, and in campaigning and establishing a supplementary school for better education provision for local black children.

Morris died aged 27 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1979.

What did she do?

Morris was a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in London- what was called “a watershed in the history of Black women’s rights activism”. Morris also co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1974 where she rallied with other members to explore the experience of black women in the Black Panther Party. The Brixton group pushed for transparency and unity in their community for women to discuss their daily lives with each other, before the group dissolved into separate sub groups that raised awareness of the black struggle.

The pioneer was also involved in squatting buildings to establish self-help community spaces, such as the 121 Railton Road squat in Brixton 1973, where Morris and a friend transformed the squat into a host of community groups including Black People against State Harassment. The same building was the location of the first black community bookshop, the Sabarr Bookshop, which Morris helped set up with other black women and men. The squat lasted as a hub until 1999.

In the 1970s, she worked alongside Leila Hassan to run the monthly British political magazine, Race Today‘s Basement Sessions, discussing arts, culture and politics.

In her youth, Morris was a member of the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement (later known as the Black Workers Movement). Even earlier, at the age of 17, Morris intercepted an act of police brutality known as the Clement Gomwalk incident in 1969 Brixton. A Nigerian diplomat was parked outside the first black record shop in Brixton when he was pulled out of his Mercedes by a police officer who interrogated Gomwalk not believing that he was a diplomat, and beating him in front of a crowd when Olive Morris jumped in to stop the police, but the officer began to beat her too. Morris accounts, however, that she only arrived at the scene after the police took the diplomat away, but stated that she was brutally beaten. Morris had then also suffered mistreatment in prison following being arrested and fined; she was ordered to strip and threatened with sexual abuse in police custody.

Why is she important?

She brought together black women in her community and made several spaces for black people to come together and discuss their experiences, support and liberate one another at a difficult time for black people in 60s and 70s Britain. The Brixton group was also one of Britain’s first networks for black women. Morris helped educate and uplift others, through her pioneering and robust campaigning, inspiring many for the future of Black Britons.

In 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial award was launched to give bursaries to young black women.

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