The History of Brixton

By: Michelle Aboagye

‘Little Jamaica’, the ‘one-time Oxford Street’, and other nicknames sometimes refer to this multicultural, multi-ethnic melting pot – Brixton. Brixton is a district in the South London borough of Lambeth known for multiple traits, such as its high population of Black communities and the creativity of its residents. Before being built up in the 19th century, Brixton was originally full of marshes, a type of soft, grassy wetland. It was also said to have been called ‘Brixistane’ and although the origin of the name is unclear, some believe that it originated from a Saxon Lord and was eventually shortened over time.

Like many areas, Brixton has undergone many transformations during different eras, notably during and after World War 2. During World War 2, Brixton, alongside other areas of London, was bombed and the area went into decline. This left many buildings, including homes, in need of repair and renovation. After World War 2, Brixton saw the arrival of the Windrush Generation into Britain. They would first be housed temporarily in deep air-raid shelters in Clapham Common, close to Brixton, and several of them would go to the Labour Exchange in Brixton to find work before ultimately settling Brixton. Homes and buildings were still in decline at this point, and they became the homes of the Caribbean migrants.

The presence of the Windrush Generation in Brixton was felt immediately. While white residents left the area, the markets in Brixton continued to expand and diversify their wares due to the larger and more multiethnic population. Alongside the ‘traditional’ British fruits and vegetables such as apples and potatoes, West Indian and African foods such as yams and plantain began to be sold in the markets to a very receptive population. This reflected the change in the population demographics of Brixton, and it allowed African and West Indian migrants to preserve their cultures while living in a new country.

6th September 1952: West Indian shoppers in Brixton market. Original Publication: Picture Post – 6044 – Breeding A Colour Bar ? – pub. 1952 (Photo by Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Aside from its markets, Brixton is home to important landmarks such the Black Cultural Archives. Originally developed in Brixton and co-founded by the iconic historian Len Garrison in 1981, the Black Cultural Archives established its headquarters in a new building in Brixton in 2014. It seeks to preserve, collect, and share the histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. It also aims to inspire individuals and communities as well as provide positive representations of Black people in the UK.

Another important landmark of Brixton is Railton Road, including 165 Railton Road and the Brixton Advice Centre. 165 Railton Road was the previous home of West Indian writer CLR James, who is commemorated by a blue plaque today. 165 Railton Road was also a hub for Black activists, community leaders, and academics in the 1970s and 80s. It was a space for them to chat, organise, and support each other. As we will explore later in this piece, Brixton has historically been a centre of resistance in many forms, including protest, campaigns, and activism.

The Brixton Advice Centre on Railton Road is a charity dedicated to providing free advice to all residents of Lambeth in all areas of their lives. In the 1970s, it was also the base of the Race Today Collective, a collective dedicated to challenging racist institutions and having conversations on issues that affected Black communities in the UK, and the Global South. Its members included the legendary activist Darcus Howe and writer Linton Kwesi Johnson. You can read more about the Race Today collective and the work they did here.

Brixton has served as many hubs over time. It was, and is, primarily a hub for Black communities, but was also a hub for Black activists and Black community leaders.  Activists and community leaders such as Olive Morris and Alex Wheatle have called Brixton home and have lived some of its history. Brixton residents have also historically been no stranger to protesting racism and its impact on Black communities. An example of this was the Brixton Uprising of 1981, which arguably came about as a result of the climate of high rates of unemployment amongst Black people and the structural racism that they faced. The Brixton Uprising of 1981 involved violent protests which lasted for three days and saw clashes between the Black youth of Brixton and the Metropolitan Police, who were enforcing racist policing such as stop-and-search and abusing their powers to oppress Black people.  

A demonstration on Gresham Road/Brixton Road near Brixton Police Station in support of the ‘Brockwell Three’ organised by the Black Workers’ Movement (BWM), Brixton, South London, UK, 4th July 1973. (Photo by Stuart/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Today, Black communities who have been in Brixton for generations are at risk of being displaced as a result of gentrification. There have been and continue to be efforts to preserve Brixton’s culture, but as Brixton is labelled ‘up-and-coming’ the threats of new expensive housing and chain restaurants displacing residents and replacing local Black-owned establishments still remain. Brixton is home to Black history, Black communities, and Black establishments and it must be preserved.

Brixton has been home to generations of Black communities, and has been the setting of several Black historical events. Despite whatever risks are posed to Black communities today by way of gentrification, Brixton will continue to be home to rich Black history and colourful residents. 

%d bloggers like this: