Summer - south of the city
Today, we’re headed south of the river for the one and only: Brixton. You can feel the buzzy vibe as you walk up the stairs onto Brixton Road – possibly the best London underground exit there is.
Brixton is packed to the brim with character and rich radical Black his/hertory and culture … with it come stories of struggle and pain. Take Windrush Square, a few minutes from the station, stark reminder of Britain’s colonial past. Renamed in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival in London of the first large group of West Indian migrants – on board of HMT Empire Windrush – who were initially housed in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Encouraged by the British government, under the British Nationality Act 1948, to make their way over to help with the ‘post-war effort’ – i.e. quell severe labour shortages - nearly half a million people came from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1970; and, because they were legally entitled to remain, they weren’t given any documentation. Then, over coming decades, it all changed. What started as a ‘welcoming invitation’ turned into aggressive hostile environment anti-immigration policy – with tons of racial discrimination and aggression in between. Protection from enforced removal of long-term residents from the Commonwealth enshrined in the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act was not transferred to 2014 immigration legislation - brought to us by the then Home Office Secretary of State, the delightful Theresa May. This led to many Windrush generation residents being treated like illegal immigrants - wrongfully detained, deported and denied benefits to British people. Many are still fighting to receive compensation!
The square has changed a great deal over the past decades. Since 2014, at number 1, you’ll find the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) - home of Black British History. BCA grew from a community response to the New Cross Massacre (1981), the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984); underachievement of Black children in British schools, the failings of the Race Relations Act 1976, and the negative impacts of racism against, lack of popular recognition of, and representation by people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. Welcoming you to centre, is a statue of the fabulous Claudia Jones – founder of The West Indian Gazette, who also played a pivotal role in setting up what later became the Notting Hill Carnival - which is back this bank holiday weekend - after a two-year hiatus!
Windrush Square is also home to two important memorials. The African-Caribbean War and Peace Memorial unveiled on 22 June 2017 – which then was the ONLY memorial specifically dedicated to commemorating the contributions made by more than two million service-men and women from the Caribbean and Africa in both 20th century world wars. The Nubian Jak Community Trust took the initiative to rectify this – once again putting responsibility in the hands of people of colour to highlight their work and achievements. The other memorial is to Cherry Groce. This is a heart-breaking story, like too many, of a family left devastated by a racist police force. In the early hours of 28 September, 1985, Cherry Groce, was shot by police – in front of her children - during a raid on her house. They were looking for her son, Michael, in connection with an armed robbery – for which he was never charged. As a result of the attack, the 37-year-old woman was left paralysed from the waist down, leaving her and her family devastated. She suffered ill health and needed decades of care from her family before dying of complications from her injuries in April 2011. The shooting sparked the 1985 uprising against institutional racism in a community relentlessly exposed to constant police abuse. It took nearly 20 years – and 3 years after her death! - for the Met to issue an apology. Last year, her son, Lee Lawrence and architect David Adjaye’s unveiled the Cherry Groce Memorial Pavilion. The memorial, which comprises a triangular roof and triangular plinth for seating, provides a small-scale shelter for the community to come together and is a powerful symbol of restorative justice.
Windrush Square, which is also the home of legendary cinema the Ritzy, is currently adorned by a beautiful community globe – as part of The World Reimagined – that focuses on local activism and the prominence of arts and culture strongly linked to Lambeth. The two people represented on the globe a none other than Olive Morris and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Both are closely associated with Railton Road – aka ‘the front line’. Walking down Railton Road in 2022, you don’t quite get a sense of how life used to play out here in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, when it was a hotbed of radicalism, with its many centres set up by activist groups. Today, in what is an increasingly gentrified area, there are few remnants of Olive Morris’ squat or Pearl Alcock’s shop and shebeen … but reading about their stories or Linton Kwesi Johnson's - who still lives here - poetry is raw and evocative. As you head towards 198 Contemporary Gallery it’s difficult not to reflect upon the his/herstories of struggle carved in the bricks of those houses. Thankfully there are some helpful reminders along way – like the Brixton Advice Centre which proudly carries pictures of local s/heroes. When I went to 198 earlier this month, I made it just in time to catch Coming Home, an exhibition bringing Pearl Alcock’s work back to Railton Road where she had lived many years. It’s a wonderful space with a warm, welcoming atmosphere, where you can have a chat and sip a cuppa - definitely worth a visit … and as it’s summer, it would be rude not to head to the Brockwell Lido for a quick dip!
And More ...
Retracing your steps up Railton Road, turn right into Leeson Road towards Somerleyton Road – in the passage you’ll find a tiny square with a beautiful mural of Olive Morris. Her spirit and energy live on and are intrinsically part of Brixton – such was her power. A short film, The Ballad of Olive Morris, was recently released retracing her short life. From there, head to Valentia Place for the mother of all murals: I come from Brixton, Baby a reference to Ty’s tune Brixton Baby. Each letter represents seminal Brixton people, places and moments: the arrival of the Windrush, Trinidadian writer and activist CLR James – author of the Black Jacobins who resided 165 Railton Road (a building that housed the offices of Darcus Howe's Race Today Collective) - the Bon Marché centre, Electric Avenue – with a sound system thrown in, Olive Morris, Ty, Cherry Groce, the Uprisings of 1981 and 1985, the Ritzy, Brixton Academy – with Skunk Anansie headlining, and David Bowie. Opposite is a mural of Ty, rapper and Brixton legend, who died of Covid-19 in May 2020 - a stark reminder that people of colour are more at risk. More than 70 years since their arrival, injustice and inequality is still rife in this community ... but, there is also determination, solidarity and hope.
And now it's ‘quartier libre’ - all the fun of exploring Brixton ‘Village’, shopping at the legendary Brixton Market and strolling down Electric Avenue… and a quick homage to David Bowie, whose memorial is right opposite the underground station on Tunstall Road, before heading down the stairs to the underground. Till next time, Brixton!
Angela Morgan’s She Likkle But She Tallawah guided tour of Brixton is highly recommended!