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The man who quietly handled business

INSPIRATION: Queen Mother Moore alongside Len Garrison, Dawn Hill, current Chair of The BCA, Yana Morris and Vincent Thompson in the 1980s

THERE IS a saying that goes something like this: the true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. In other words, it takes vision and selflessness to understand the importance of laying a foundation without wanting, or expecting, any of the glory. It was a phrase fit for a man like Len Garrison.

Lenford Kwesi Garrison, who died aged 59, on February 18, 2003, was rightly named one of our Greatest Black Britons, according to a list produced by Every Generation Media. But despite considerable contributions to his community, he is no household name.

The Jamaican-born photographer and educationalist is one of the founding members of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), a lasting legacy that combines everything Garrison was passionate about.

From humble beginnings in an office in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, Garrison and his peers started something in the 1980s that is on track to become Britain’s first black heritage centre in 2014, housing a rich collection of pictures, documents, statues, journals and newspapers that puts Black British history in context.

DRIVE


PASSION: Activist Len Garrison (second from right) and other campaigners calling for a BCA

The idea in itself was revolutionary. Paul Reid, director of the BCA, said: “When no one else was talking about it, Len spoke about black history in Britain. Len was just one of the founding members, but his drive meant that everyone looked to him. He didn’t just talk; this was a man who went everywhere collecting things, going to auctions and taking photographs. He was the energy; the engine behind everything.”

Garrison, the eldest of five siblings, moved to Britain in 1954. The keen academic, with an insatiable appetite for learning, went on to study photography at King’s College, London. He worked as a medical photographer at Guy’s Hospital and as a freelancer for the West Indian Gazette, founded by another black hero Claudia Jones.

But his love for education meant he didn’t stop there: he went on to achieve a diploma at Ruskins College, University of Oxford, in development studies, a degree in African and Caribbean history, at the University of Sussex and an MA in local history at Leicester.

“He was all about education and the value of education,” said Michael Garrison, Len’s youngest brother. “That was something I tried to take forward in my own life.

“As the eldest, Len was a type of father figure. He was a major influence in all our lives; motivating us and giving us this awareness of our culture and identity. He would take me around and introduce me to new things, instilling me with all this knowledge.”

The Pan-Africanist was a fan of US civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore and Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey. Garvey’s advocacy of self-improvement was something that was at the heart of all Len did.

Before his work with the BCA, Garrison had campaigned and fundraised for two years to set up the Afro-Caribbean Education Resource (Acer) which created lessons in black history that could be taught in mainstream schools. The initiative was groundbreaking.

When it launched in 1977, Garrison was director. It was through this that he established the Black Penmanship Awards, an annual prize-giving ceremony, which celebrated young black talent.

One of the winners was criminal barrister Nicola Williams, now the ombudsman at the Office of the Complaints Commissioner in the Cayman Islands.

Back then, Williams was a young law student living in south London with a passion for creative writing, a talent nurtured by Garrison at sessions he ran in Brixton.

“I entered two pieces, and won first and second prize. I got this huge, round, heavy jade-looking plaque like an Inca sculpture; the other was an African head carving,” recalled Williams, a former commissioner with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
She added: “Len challenged the stereotypes of what the mainstream thought black culture was supposed to be. He loved literature, photography and poetry, and he wanted people to know there was more to our culture than singing and dancing in a club. He had a much broader view, and I’m very glad he did.”

Williams never stopped writing, and went on to publish a legal thriller.

Reid said: “Len was understated, but he was a leader without question. He didn’t look like a radical fist-in-the-air Pan-Africanist with his smart suit and glasses, but he was very much a part of that world. He just quietly went about business.

INVESTED

“He was seriously well-educated and could have applied his skills and talents to anything, but he invested it instead into our community. He wasn’t remunerated for it; his work was a selfless sacrifice to the cause.”

The Seventies and Eighties in Britain were very different times. Racism was both visceral and in your face. In their adversity, Caribbean communities were tight-knit and stood together. In 1981, one of the largest black-led days of action took place in protest over the deaths of the young people killed in the New Cross Fires. Garrison, of course, was there to capture it on film.

Veteran journalist Alex Pascall, who helped set up the BBC’s iconic Black Londoners radio show, said: “When something was happening, Len would be there with his camera in his hand. It is so important that people like him aren’t forgotten.

“He was part of an era when Caribbean people were super-active. We have lost that brand – mainly because many of them have died, or gone back home. Len was incredibly astute; he had a great understanding of the society we lived in and its challenges.”

Garrison’s family, however, is dedicated to working with the BCA to drive forward Len’s original vision. His widow, Marie Garrison, and his niece Jacine Rutasikwa, have both served on the board of trustees, for example. His sister, Janet, led a fundraising campaign for a bronze bust that will take pride of place at the BCA’s new home in Brixton’s Windrush Square.

It was created by close friend George ‘Fowokan’ Kelly. In a short film about the making of the bust, produced by Michael Garrison, Fowokan said: “I knew him as a man who worked unceasingly to raise the profile of the black community’s need for monuments that commemorate our deeds and aspirations. Where are our monuments? is the title of one of his poems and was a question that was forever in his thoughts and actions.

Fowokan added: “His dream did not die with him, however. It lives on in the hearts and minds who understand what he struggled for in his life – a life that was lived to the full.”

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