2 OCTOBER 2018
By Dr Angelina Osborne, Historical researcher and heritage consultant

All photo credits: Lambeth Archives

Olive Morris was a community activist in South London in the 1970s, who died of cancer aged 27 in 1979. Through her activities organising the black community and feminist activism, she left behind an extraordinary legacy of local activism.

Olive MorrisIn 1986 the Brixton Black Women’s group, of which she was a co-founder, campaigned to have 18 Brixton Hill renamed Olive Morris House in her memory. In 2006 the Remembering Olive Collective set up an online resource to collect information and material relating to her life and the organisations she worked with, and conduct interviews with people who knew her, to keep her memory and legacy alive.

For many years I was unaware of her existence, or the contributions she had made to the communities in London and Manchester. I was curious why this black woman had not been recognised for her accomplishments beyond South London and was absent in the discourse on black radical feminist and community activism. I wanted to learn more about her, to get a sense of her personality and politics, and why she had committed herself to radical activism. There was nothing I could find that explained Olive’s choice to immerse herself in Marxist Leninist thought, or what single event politicised her. These things, I suppose, are gradual; not one event but a series of events that makes one choose their life’s calling. Looking through her papers held at Lambeth Archives, I came across a photograph taken of her in 1969, when she would have been around 17 or 18. Her face was swollen, her clothes torn and dirty. On the back of the photograph was written, ‘Leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969’.

Earlier that day a Nigerian diplomat had parked his Mercedes on Atlantic Road in Brixton, leaving his wife and children in the car while he bought some records. Police officers, thinking the diplomat had stolen the car began to, according to witnesses, arrest him and beat him. Olive came forward and physically tried to stop the police from attacking the diplomat, causing the police to turn on her, arrest her and assault her, kicking her in the chest. This young girl, barely five feet two inches, took on racist police officers, without thinking about her own safety, because she couldn’t stand by and allow the injustice of an African man being arrested for driving a nice car. This was one early incident of Olive’s commitment to challenging oppression.

Olive dedicated her life to the struggle for liberation, democracy and socialism.

She became part of the British Black Panther Movement in 1968, of which she became a core member, along with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Althea Johnson, Neil Kenlock and Clovis Reid. She was central to the squatters’ campaign of the 1970s, opening the 121 Railton Road squat in 1973 with Liz Obi. According to Darcus Howe’s biographers, Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Olive was a woman who turned squatting into an art form.  In honour of that skill set, Olive is photographed scaling the wall of a house on the front cover of the Squatters’ Handbook.

She took a degree in social sciences at Manchester University and became involved in community groups in Moss Side, and was an active member of the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative. The struggle of black women was at the heart of her activism; she was the co-founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1974, and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). She travelled extensively, visiting China on a student delegation organised by the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, to see how Chinese people were building a socialist society. She seemed impressed with what China had accomplished, which was due, in her view, to the role of the people in nation building. She also travelled to Morocco, Algeria, Spain, France, and Hong Kong. 

Olive packed so much into her 27 years. She was a radical black feminist, committed to the struggle against racial, sexual and class oppression. She was a communist, who believed that the implementation of Marxism Leninism was a practical possibility, that the resources of the world could and should be evenly distributed.

Listening to the recollections of the people who knew her and reading through the newspaper clippings, essays written by her at Manchester University, photographs of her at family gatherings, protests, travelling through China, on cycling holidays with her boyfriend produced details that fleshed out her human dimensions. She was funny and charismatic. She was nice. She loved dancing. She liked looking good, and having a good time. She was very serious about her activism, about creating a better world for working class people.

It seems to me that Olive came into the world fully formed in terms of her politics and ideas; that she knew what she wanted to do with her life. If she had lived, I am convinced that she would be campaigning against the current housing crisis, prison reform and white supremacy. She would have refined her ideas and found a space in the intellectual homes of the radical black tradition, Black British history and politics, African diaspora history, intersectionality, and Pan Africanist politics.

When I think of her, I see her in an undated photograph, smiling and holding up a placard which read, ‘Black Women, fight now for the future of your kids’. I see her in a photograph leading a march for the Black Workers Movement. There is so much more to be said about this remarkable woman who led such a remarkable life.

About author

Historical researcher Angelina OsborneAngelina Osborne is an independent researcher and heritage consultant. She received her PhD in History from the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull in 2014. Her interests focus on Caribbean enslavement and plantation economy, planter interests and the study of proslavery discourses and rhetoric.

Prior to her doctoral studies Angelina worked as a freelance historical researcher writer and consultant, managing a range of projects and commissions for community organisations, social enterprises and larger institutions related to the public history of slavery, memory and citizenship. Angelina has also researched and written extensively on the African and Caribbean presence in Britain, developing educational resources, workshops and courses for children and adults on this subject. She recently completed a project exploring the experiences of African and Caribbean soldiers who served in the First World War for Churches Together in England.