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Garrison, Lenford Alphonso [Len; known as Lenford Kwesi Garrison] (1943–2003), historian and educationist, was born in St Thomas, Jamaica, on 13 June 1943, the son of Ernest Samuel Garrison, builder. He had three brothers and one sister. His father and mother migrated to Britain in 1952 and 1953 respectively, and went to live in Uverdale Road, Chelsea, where the young Len joined them in 1954. While at secondary school in London he pursued an interest in photography which he reinforced with a part-time job as projectionist at a cinema in Clapham Junction. On leaving school he studied photography at Regent Street Polytechnic and the London College of Printing, and worked as a specialist in medical photography first at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine (1962–6), then at the Maudsley Hospital (1966–71). He also worked as a freelance photographer, frequently taking photographs of Caribbean families to send to their relatives back home. In 1971 he went to Ruskin College, Oxford, where he studied for a diploma in development studies and wrote a dissertation on the Rastafarian movement. From there he went to the University of Sussex where in 1976 he took a degree in African and Caribbean history. Much later, in 1992, he gained an MA in local history at Leicester University. On 28 July 1973 he married Loretta Young, a 25-year-old fellow student from Brixton, and daughter of Owen Young, welder. This marriage ended in divorce, and on 17 December 1987 he married Marie Beverley James, a 34-year-old teacher, and daughter of Peter Leroy James, farmer. They had one son, Tunde.

After graduating from Sussex, Garrison began his engagement with the field that was to shape and define his life's work. During the late 1960s and early 1970s the black migrant communities had begun to throw up various forms of political organization, which were largely informal and based on community activism. These focused around a clutch of black bookshops in the major cities, a small group of community centres, and the activities of charismatic individuals. Garrison set out to be involved with the meetings and personalities who shaped the events; and wherever he went he began to collect mementoes—photographs, posters, minutes, and reports, gradually building up a collection which outlined the organizational shape of the black communities.

Garrison's own experience as a schoolboy, his engagement with the black communities, and his research on the attitudes of young black people in Britain alerted him to the lack of provision in the educational system for black pupils who had recently migrated, or whose parents had migrated, from the Caribbean. As the difficulties of integrating them in the educational structure became apparent, the authorities who ran inner city schools and the teachers who worked in them began demanding materials and textbooks dealing with the history and background of their African and Caribbean pupils. Garrison set out to fill the vacuum. In 1977 he founded the Afro-Caribbean Education Resource, and remained its director for the next eleven years. He began by pioneering education packs at Dick Sheppard School in Brixton. The project was supported by the inner London education authority and later the Greater London council. Soon its materials began to be used all over the country, making a major contribution to the development of a multicultural curriculum. The Afro-Caribbean Education Resource also spawned a series of schemes for older children and young adults, the best-known of which was the Black Youth Annual Penmanship Awards. The awards provided prizes and support for original and creative writing, and, in the process, became a platform which helped to launch the careers of several young black professionals, such as Clive Davis (the Sunday Times music critic), Nicola Williams (the novelist and barrister), and Michael McMillan (the playwright).

In 1988 Garrison went to Nottingham as director of the Association of Caribbean Families and Friends, a project funded by the local authority. This gave him the opportunity to expand the reach of his work and to create a new network. At Nottingham he established one of the first effective mentoring projects, and in another innovative move persuaded the King's Fund to back a scheme for supporting the carers of orphaned and abandoned black children. He also established the East Midlands African Caribbean Arts. One high point of his tenure was an exhibition at the city's museum, ‘The Black Presence in Nottingham’ (1993), which attracted a notable and unusual interest among the black community in the region.

In 1997 Garrison returned to Brixton to devote more time to the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), which he had co-founded in 1981, and which had just joined with Middlesex University to create the Archive and Museum of Black History. His own contribution to the collection was immense. In a sense he had been assembling the BCA since he was a student. Every black activist of any kind knew him, because he would turn up everywhere, taking photographs, making notes, and collecting documents; and his knowledge of the black British community was exceptional. The BCA collection came to form a unique record of black migrant life at the moment when the identity of the black British community was beginning to emerge. Apart from such gems as the most complete musicology of Samuel Taylor Coleridge there were handbills, flyers, posters, programmes, minutes, and records of a wide range of events, including political meetings, art exhibitions, concerts, plays, and community meetings about education, welfare, and politics.

Len Garrison was unwavering and sincere in defence of his work, and never gave the impression that it was a stepping stone to official and establishment acceptance. He was arguably the most important figure in the black British community's exploration and understanding of its own history in this country. His work in creating and developing materials based on the experience of African and Caribbean pupils gave a major impetus to the development of a multicultural curriculum in British schools. His interests were sometimes unexpected. He served as a voluntary gallery guide at the Tate, and he had a passionate interest in visual culture. He was also a poet: his volume Beyond Babylon (1985) was well received. To his friends and family, as well as to the young people who benefited from his work, he was loving and generous. He remained immensely active to the end; he suffered a heart attack while attending a meeting of the management committee of the BCA in London on 18 February 2003, and was pronounced dead on arrival at King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill. He was buried on 13 March at Wandsworth cemetery following a funeral service at Brixton Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He was survived by his wife, Marie, and their son, Tunde.

Mike Phillips


The Observer (9 Feb 2003) · The Guardian (28 Feb 2003) · Root [Hansib Publications, London], 2 (March 2003), 1–4 · The Times (8 April 2003) · M. Phillips, History Workshop Journal, 56 (2003), 295–7 · personal knowledge (2007) · private information (2007) · m. certs. · d. cert.


obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£203,415: probate, 25 July 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales