Every passing day, the Black Experience rediscovers stories that were once forgotten or neglected. We share those stories to make sure they receive the spotlight they deserved, the first time around. Till this day, “the first Black…” is a tired declaration which intensifies how much further we still need to go.
We’re kicking off Black History Month by celebrating those who came before us; sharing their stories and showing gratitude for helping us have the Black British experience we have today. These are our sung and unsung heroes of yesterday!
From organising protests to setting up support groups, Olive Morris was very much about it.
Born in 1952, Jamaica, Morris and her family settled in South London when she was nine years old. Growing up in a then “bigotry” Britain, at only 17, Morris encountered her first incident of police brutality on November 15th 1969.
On that day, Clement Gomwalk, a Nigerian diplomat, was driving his Mercedes but then pulled over by the police, near a record shop Olive Morris was in. During this time, the “sus law” allowed the police to stop and search people based on suspicion of wrongdoing. Black people were often targeted and faced unwarranted arrests.
Gomwalk went into the record shop to make a purchase but was then arrested after the police suspected him of stealing his car. His arrest attracted a crowd, as he was, unfortunately, beaten up by the officers. Their protests got some of them to receive a few blows of their own including one of Morris’s friends. Quick to come to their defence, Morris also received assaults from the police.
In an essay from Tanisha C. Ford’s, “Violence at Desmond’s Hip Hop City: Gender and Soul Power in London”, Morris recalled the incident:
“Each time I tried to talk or raise my head I was slapped in the face.”
This encounter with the police stimulated Morris into a movement of Black women fighting against racial discrimination in 1970s Britain. She helped found the British Black Panther Movement, which fought for equal housing, employment, education rights and against racial discrimination.
In total, 3000 members helped expose racism in schools, the police and government. In 1970, the group had their most notorious campaign for defending the Mangrove Restaurant, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, which was a frequent victim to police raids. Nine arrests were made at the march but acquitted as it “forced the judicial acknowledgement of ‘evidence of racial hatred’” in the Metropolitan police.
After the movement disbanded in 1973, Morris went forward to co-found the Brixton Black Woman’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. There, she campaigned for better access to education, decent living conditions minority communities in Britain.
In 1978, Morris soon fell ill and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. On July 12th 1979, she passed away at the young age of 27. Morris continues to be celebrated by her local community. Her face has appeared in on the Brixton Pound, and since 2011, the Olive Morris memorial award has given bursaries to young Black Women.
Vanley Burke, A.K.A the Godfather of Black British history is a British Jamaican photographer who has orchestrated possibly the best photographic visual capsules of the African Caribbean community in post-war Britain. Many of his iconic images have captured social change and evolution among generations within the Black British community. A large portion of his work has been exhibited in New York, South Africa, China and of course the United Kingdom.
“The photographs are very much a part of a documentation process which we as black people need to go through, and it is not an attempt to show the black community to the wider community, this is where we are, it is, more importantly, a record!”
— VANLEY BURKE
Born in Jamaica 1951, Burke moved to Birmingham in 1965. He started his journey of documenting through photos after being gifted a camera by his grandmother on his 10th birthday. He started capturing stories in 1967 and has been doing so ever since.
For 30 years, Burke’s mission was to document the Black British experience in all its authenticity; from baptisms to birthdays. His documentations go further as he also captured historical events including the African Liberation Day in 1997, where “the biggest all-black crowd gathered in Britain.”
Burke didn’t only help share the stories on British soil, his work also included stories from abroad. After Nelson Mandela was released, Burke took a trip to South Africa to record the celebrations and events post-Apartheid.
Feminist. Black nationalist. Political activist. Community leader. Journalist.
Mother of Notting Hill Carnival, the annual street party which has been loved and recognised globally for the soca-hyped melodies blasted out on sound systems for many to enjoy. But what is now a celebratory occasion first began as a token for a fragile community, who wished nothing more but harmony whilst on British soil. Claudia Jones gave us exactly that.
Born February 21st 1915, the Trinidad and Tobago native fought against resistance like no other. Emigrating to New York City with her family, at the age of 8, Jones faced many hardships that only fuelled her aspirations. Here, her political career flourished as a journalist and activist. During her teenage years, her educational career only reached high school level, due to being diagnosed with tuberculosis. This will continue to impact her throughout her life.
In 1936, she became a member of the Young Communist USA, an organisation which focused primarily on Marxism and Leninism. This would then become the American Youth for Democracy during World War II. Her political career didn’t stop there — she went on to join the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Communist Party USA. Recognised as being a prominent Black Feminist to date, Jones persisted on granting Black Women a voice in a world that often silenced them. In the essay, "An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!" (1949) Jones shared the experiences many Black women face; resulting in establishing the foundations of what is to be intersectional feminism today.
However, her strong political stance often got her into trouble with the law. She was soon deported to the UK, after serving eight months at the Federal Reformatory for Women, at Alderson, West Virginia. Her arrival to the UK granted her the opportunity to witness the arrival of the Windrush generation. Experiencing the racial tension and anti-immigration narrative, Jones began to advocate for her community. In 1958, she provided the British Caribbean community with a voice by founding The West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first Black newspaper. Within the same year, what was considered to be the first Notting Hill Carnival was birthed, after violent riots broke out on the streets of Notting Hill and Nottingham.
Horace Ové is a Trinidad-born British filmmaker, photographer, writer and painter. Born on the 3rd of December 1939, Ové is one of Britain’s first Black independent filmmakers. He currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the first Black British filmmaker to direct a feature-length film, Pressure (1975).
Ové wasn’t afraid to make people uncomfortable, especially when confronting racism in his films. His camerawork was one which documented the Black British Panther Movement throughout the decades. Many of his classics include Baldwin’s N***** (1968), Pressure and Dream to Chand the World (2003). Many consider being a significant figure within the filmmaking realm.
Check out more of his story with Galeforce Television:
Or the “real first lady of jazz”, was an American born jazz singer. Born on 20th October 1901, Hall was raised in the streets of Harlem along with her sister Evelyn. There, the two siblings would start their singing group as the Hall Sisters and perform in local events within the community. In 1920, Evelyn sadly passed away, leaving Hall devastated. Determined to live out both hers and her sister’s dream, Hall was granted her big break in 1921, in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921).
In 1924, Halls was then to marry Trinidad native, Bertram Hicks, who settled in the UK. Both she and her husband focused primarily on Hall’s entertainment career. The following year, she performed in Chocolate Kiddies, which became a European success. The show included African American jazz numbers and dances. She toured Hamburg, Germany; Vienna, Austria, and Geneva, Switzerland. Her stardom reached stateside but struggled to hold its momentum due to racism and America’s poor economic system. In 1939, Adelaide and her husband settled in London.
Her career spanned across seven decades and led to her crowning as Britain’s highest-paid female entertainer in 1941. At the fruitful age of 92, Adelaide Hall passed away in her home in London, in 1993.