LONDON, England — When Noel Morris came to the United Kingdom as a nine-year-old boy, racism was so rampant the teachers at the all-white school he attended hastily pulled the Caucasian children from the swimming pool when he got in with them.
Fast-forward almost 50 years later and the man who still retains his Jamaican passport and dialect will always be known as one who helped to carry the Olympic Torch on its 8,000-mile stretch around Britain, as a reward for the contribution he has made to his adopted country.
“I am quite proud to have carried the torch, especially at the time of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary, and I am proud of my heritage,” a beaming Morris told the Jamaica Observer.
“I enjoy the fact that when I arrive home the immigration officer says, ‘Welcome home, Mr Morris,” he added.
Morris is also known for being one of three persons in Britain to have attained the sixth dan rank in judo.
Six months ago when he got a letter in the mail informing him that he was nominated and approved as a torch bearer, Morris, however, could not help reminiscing on the early days when he first migrated to this country.
Growing up in the then middle-class community of Harbour View in Kingston, Morris, who is affectionately called ‘Mo’, said it was very difficult to adjust when he first arrived in London.
“When we just came here it was very difficult because it was in the middle of winter and so everywhere looked grey and every house looked like a factory with smoke coming out of the chimney,” he recalled.
Added to that, he was the first black child in his school and this did not go down well with parents.
“The first time I went swimming the teachers took the kids out because they weren’t sure what would be the reaction of the parents and that was the last time I ever went swimming,” he said.
He recalled going home to ask his mother what the words ‘nigger’ and ‘spade’ meant as that was how he was addressed.
Although life got a bit better when he went to high school where there were other black students, and although he excelled in sports, his colour once again prevented him from attaining his utmost.
An excellent judo player who later went on to win nine national championships, Morris was initially sidelined for the national team.
“None of the black guys got selected for the national team because there was this great racial divide, and more so in sports,” he said.
This only started to change when the limited number of black athletes who had broken through the glass ceiling started to excel.
Determined to make his mark on the black community, Morris left a thriving music career managing some of Jamaica’s top reggae acts to establish a football academy.
He got the idea to start this academy when he discovered that a lot of the youth who were registering for a Sunday team he had started could barely read or write their names.
As such, he opted to use football as the carrot to get these young people to a facility where they could develop their sporting prowess as well as their academics.
“I discovered that there were a lot of good athletes between ages 16 and 20 who, once they left school, access to coaching and development stopped and so they ended up on the street getting into petty crimes and selling drugs,” he said.
This was how the LA (London Athletics) Raiders, which has since produced some 200 qualified coaches, was born. While many of the alumni are employed full-time in high schools, others are said to be working in the United States, Africa, Canada, Ireland and Scotland.
His dream is to establish a partnership with Jamaica where grassroot youth can be sent to participate in the programme at the academy.
“If you have 16-year-olds coming abroad to the academy they can go back as mentors in their neighbourhoods and that is one quick way of changing the ghetto mentality,” he said.
Morris now bemoans the fact that this generation of black children in Britain has lost attachment with their roots and has failed to recognise the struggles of the older generation to make things easier for them.
But Britain, he said, has come a long way in addressing racial issues and is now one of the most tolerant countries.
He, however, believes that more Jamaican parents should influence their children to identify with their heritage.
“A lot of kids born here don’t even want to go to Jamaica. If you ask them where they want to holiday they will say Spain or some place like that,” he said.
Morris said he tries to make it back to Jamaica as often as he can to see the only relative he has living there — his cousin Norwyn Gayle in his beloved Harbour View.