In 2006, while researching the history of black British activism at Peckham library, Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre came across a photo from a Black Panther demonstration at Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. Within a crowd of men, the image captured a barefoot woman, fag in hand, holding a placard that commanded ‘Black Sufferer Fight Police Pig Brutality’. That mesmerising figure was Olive Morris: the memorial name also given to the housing benefit office Lopez de la Torre had dealt with after moving to Brixton from Uruguay.
Intrigued by the convergence, Lopez de la Torre turned to Google. ‘I went online and there was nothing about her. And then I went to libraries and archives and there was nothing about her there either.’
Lambeth Archives hadn’t anything on file on Morris, but the staff there knew of her and put Lopez de la Torre in touch with Liz Obi, a close friend of Morris who had organised a Remembering Olive exhibition back in 2000.
Obi started filling Lopez de la Torre in. Before her death in 1979, Morris had been involved in the squatters’ movement, the British Black Panthers, and the black women’s movement – co-founding the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. But what Obi remembered most was the bangles and bicycle that always accompanied Morris and the lesson she had taught her: never to be afraid of anything.
The two women began collecting and consolidating materials relating to Morris – college essays, correspondence with community organisations, albums of personal pictures, notes of condolence after her death (the artefacts are now housed in Lambeth Archives). Together they also founded the inter-generational Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) in 2008.
‘She wasn’t someone who was famous in the sense of leaders,’ explains Lopez de la Torre of the need to chronicle Olive’s life. ‘She also died very young, at 27. Maybe she would have become an MP or an academic or been able to produce some more permanent form of documentation, but she was really a grass-roots activist.’
Lopez de la Torre set up the blog Do You Remember Olive Morris? as the public face of the project in 2007. Its purpose was to create ‘a collective portrait of Olive Morris’, blending oral histories with information about the political currents of the time, encouraging people who knew Olive to also get in touch. Monthly meetings with the all-female collective followed soon after.
Through gathering information and testimony about Morris, ROC created grass-roots histories that honoured connections, creativity and participation – even if it also meant bending the rules of laying down history proper. ‘History is a discipline that is very structured, that has all these laws,’ Lopez de la Torre explains. ‘But a lot of community groups are being trained in these things. Where before oral history would be done by proper oral historians, now it’s done by all those wannabe oral historians who did a couple of days training and are going in there and completely mongrelising oral history. I’m all for it!’
There is a strong need to recuperate activist histories. In a book published by the collective last year, Obi warns that ‘Olive was part of a black youth movement that had developed in Britain in the 1970s, a generation that had fought against racism of the state and society but whose contribution seemed to have been lost somewhere between the Windrush arrivals and the 1981 riots.’ Following Obi, the publication’s title Do You Remember Olive Morris? begins to take on another angle: if you don’t remember Olive, why not?
The fact that grass-roots histories are so poorly remembered – especially those of women, people of colour, those disenfranchised or living in poverty – is no simple accident. Propping up the status quo with selective examples of the past feeds assumptions that change only happens periodically, in ways that can be marked and contained by state-sanctioned memorials or anniversaries.
These narratives also naturalise the power relations of dominant groups: our collective cultural memory consistently fails to highlight continuous, linked up, grass-roots struggles for social change. Ditto to facilitating the transference of political experience or understanding the contours of colonialism and imperialism, for example. That many people do not remember Olive Morris – have never even heard of her – means that they cannot build on her strength or learn from her successes.
Reclaiming radical histories has long been an activist strategy – from the self-publicising of the Women’s Social and Political Union to the inner city oral history projects that Lopez de la Torre is involved in today. To legitimate people’s lives as a form of history is a powerful form of activism; to document activist history is to create a toolkit for the future.
But there are limits to using new media to create these kinds of political archives. Lopez de La Torre notes, ‘Lots of people I work with have little internet access or struggle to even read emails. There is a lot of emphasis on the futuristic vision that technology is going to make everything wonderful and it’s about all these voices, and it’s really not. It’s still pretty much a monoculture of people who are educated and have the technology.’
The ROC project has had many successes through the blog, however. A major victory was ensuring that the plaque and photo of Olive that had been taken down during a refurbishment of Olive Morris House was reinstated – a long and frustrating process that came to fruition after two years of campaigning. Thanks to the collective, the council’s commemoration also filled out to include a small window display in the building and a dedicated web page.
‘I think it’s interesting how histories have been deactivated and have to be started all over again,’ Lopez de La Torre observes. Just don’t call the process empowering. ‘I hate that word, empowerment. It’s very heroic. All the women who were part of the ROC collective were strong, independent women already involved in community activism. But we brought everything to another level.’
With a collectively produced book, blog, range of community events and deposited archive materials, Olive Morris’s legacy shines on fierce and strong, helping to disrupt the silence and invisibility surrounding black British feminist history. Much can be learnt from the celebration and struggles of Morris, whose fight and example remains current to life in the UK and beyond today.
Red Chidgey is a DIY feminist historian. As part of her PhD on feminist media and cultural memory, she is looking for people with experience or knowledge about feminist media projects from the late 1960s till now.
Her research blog is feministmemory.wordpress.com