Forgotten Black Bookshops of Brixton – Townscape Heritage Initiative

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Image of Railton Road street sign

Maya Campbell explores the history 121 Railton Road and the organisations that made it their home

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Through the years, 121 Railton Road has played host to a lively and radical history. British Black Panthers members Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull occupied the flats in 1972, then situated above a launderette, and successfully fought off illegal eviction attempts. Olive and Liz found themselves without a place to live and not enough money to rent. They chose this particular area after hearing about a group of women squatting on Railton Road and running a women’s centre. At the time, 121 Railton Road was empty and privately owned, making it trickier to squat than property owned by the Council, especially for two young black women. The owners, property agents and local police’s power was combined against them and all viewed their behaviour as criminal. Both Liz and Olive resisted several attempts at evicting them, the most infamous episode was printed on the cover of the Squatters Handbook 1979 Edition. On a January morning in 1973, Olive was away at work when the police forcefully removed Liz from the house and took her to the local police station.  Olive returned home, followed by the police who had come back to take her away too. Olive climbed onto the roof of the house and from there, shouted her protest at the policemen on the street. After resisting constant threats, they moved to a Council property down the road and squatted 64 Railton Road. 

Following this move, 121 Railton Road became Sabaar Bookshop whilst also hosting  Brixton Black Panthers meetings and a Black advice center service. The three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road was a pivotal site in the decolonisation work that was happening during the 70s, black people were particularly vocal in Britain and the US about the need to learn and write our own history. 

Although Sabaar Bookshop is sometimes believed to be the first Black bookshop in Brixton, Unity Bookshop was its predecessor and was destroyed by racists in an arson attack the same year it was opened, on the 15th of March 1973. The Black Panthers sold a unique selection of black literature and their paper Freedom News, on what was known then as the frontline. At the time, the building was derelict but Keith Carling, a young architect who had just finished school used his skills to put in toilets and showers to make the conditions liveable.

Several community groups were based in 121 Railton Road, including a radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude, an anarchist-queer group AnarQuist, Brixton Squatter’s Aid and many more. Throughout the years, the elegant Edwardian facades on Railton Road have been home to powerful, anti-establishment movements whose echoes reverberate through our community today.

2 COMMENTS

  1. At the time, the building was derelict but Keith Carling, a young architect who had just finished school used his skills to put in toilets and showers to make the conditions liveable.

    Was this actually Keith Cowling who matches this description? He was a friend of Bob Kindred and Graham Caine (also young architects squatting in the area)

  2. Can’t imagine any Gay person using the word Queer, let alone identifying as such back in the 70s or 80s.

    There was a Gay Centre further up Railton Road at number 78 next to The Womens Centre at 80 Railton Road.

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