Pearl Gibbs’ experiences of Depression-era unemployment and segregation helped inspire her fight against racist discrimination, writes Matilda Fay
Pearl Gibbs’ involvement in the movement for Aboriginal rights spanned the campaigns of the 1930s all the way through to the 1967 referendum.
The attitude of the Australian state toward Aboriginal people in the mid-20th century (and indeed today) was characterised by racist paternalism and brutality. The infamous NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB) exercised control over Aboriginal people’s work, living conditions and daily lives.
As a member of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association (the APA), Pearl Gibbs fought for the abolition of the APB, and for the rights of Aboriginal people to exercise control over their own affairs. She fought particularly hard for the rights of women and girls removed from their families. She organised amongst workers during the Depression, and went on to form strong links with the union movement and with women’s organisations.
As the international Black Lives Matter movement continues to fuel the struggle for Aboriginal rights in Australia, Pearl Gibbs’ political work provides important lessons for the activists of today.
Pearl Gibbs was raised in Yass, NSW, by her mother, Mary Margaret Brown. Historian Heather Goodall argues that Gibbs’ early life, with connections both to Aboriginal families and white workers in railway fettlers’ camps gave her, “a really strong sense of working people, Black and white, and that’s one of the things she carried through her whole life with her”.
As a child she experienced the segregation of the school system. She was turned away from schools in Cowra and Yass, being told “no Blacks were allowed”. When later in her life she was asked about the motivations for her political activism, school segregation was one of the experiences she cited.
She also pointed to the forced “hiring” of Aboriginal workers that both her mother and her stepfather Dick Murray experienced. At this time the APB did not yet formally control the labour of Aboriginal people, but a similar process was carried out by police and managers.
In 1917 Gibbs moved with her sister to Sydney where they would work as domestic servants. There she heard of the appalling treatment of young Aboriginal women who had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent there to work, and began to advocate for them with the Board.
In 1929, after a marriage breakdown Gibbs lost her job in the Great Depression and moved to the Happy Valley unemployment camp. During the Depression years Happy Valley and other surrounding camps saw increased social mixing between working class white and Aboriginal people. One recollection of the place recounts that whenever someone sounded the alarm that the welfare department were coming, Black and white children alike would run and hide, as the white children didn’t understand that they wouldn’t be taken. The police and the APB made a concerted effort to segregate white unemployed workers from Aboriginal people; preventing whites from entering the nearby Aboriginal reserve at La Perouse. Pearl Gibbs was keenly aware of this segregation effort and it hardened her attitude against the APB.
After some time there, Gibbs moved to Nowra where she worked picking peas with other Aboriginal women. Here she helped organise stop work meetings to demand basic working conditions with the support of local Labor Party activists, as well as a boycott of the cinema to oppose the segregation of Aboriginal people. She was outraged by the Board manager’s control over how Aboriginal workers from the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Station spent their income. The manager ordered that the women could only shop while he was present. Gibbs undermined and embarrassed him by encouraging the women to ask him to help them buy underwear.
The APA and new alliances
In 1937 Pearl Gibbs returned to Sydney to work with the newly formed Aborigines Progressive Association alongside Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten. The APA campaigned for the abolition of the Board, and called for full citizenship rights for Aboriginal people.
Pearl Gibbs brought with her an extensive understanding of the conditions faced by Aboriginal people on reserves, and the situation for women in particular. At Ferguson’s suggestion, she applied for a job as a cook at the Brewarrina dormitory to investigate claims of sexual abuse of Aboriginal women as well as overcrowding and poor rations. This helped secure a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry into the Protection Board in 1937-1938.
A particularly abhorrent feature of the protection system was the indentured servitude of Aboriginal women and girls. Wages were stolen, food rations were inadequate, and women regularly faced sexual assault from their white employers. Looking back, Gibbs described this as:
“One of the tragedies that broke up the relationship between the Aboriginal people. The girls were told not to mix with Aboriginal people, sent to strange places, separated from all their relations. And they wholly and solely belonged to whoever employed them—and I call that slavery!”
This became a key focus for her activism and she became a powerful public speaker. She formed connections with countless women’s organisations, and was on the management committee of the Union of Australian Women.
Women’s organisations at the time were rife with condescending maternalism toward Aboriginal people. Gibbs fought hard to win support for Aboriginal people being able to control their own lives. A key debate occurred around a campaign from women’s groups to appoint a white anthropologist to the APB. This was shaped by racist ideas about Aboriginal people’s needs being best understood by white “experts” who supported assimilation. Gibbs was vocal on the issue, writing a letter to the editor of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) publication Woman Today declaring that Aboriginal people were “not asking for the stone of anthropology—but for practical humanity, for the opportunity to feed our children properly, to educate them”.
1938 saw a number of key APA campaigns that Pearl Gibbs was involved in, including the famous Day of Mourning protest marking 150 years since invasion. The Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship was established, which marked a significant step in forming alliances between Aboriginal and white activists, including militant unionists.
Gibbs urged women’s organisations to take political action in support of Aboriginal rights rather than offer charity. In 1951 at the first annual conference of the Union of Australian Women she is quoted as saying:
“My people do not want your sympathy—we have had that since Captain Cook landed. We ask your assistance, we ask you to join us in a committee to be formed comprising white and Aboriginal Australians, to work for justice”.
Pearl Gibbs continued to be publicly outspoken about the conditions faced as a result of the Protection Board. Her intimate understanding of communities across NSW made her a fierce spokesperson. In a letter to the Nowra Leader in 1940 she wrote:
“I know La Perouse, Roseby Park, Wreck Bay, Wallaga Lakes, and various other aborigine stations… I also know Brewarrina very well. The bad housing, water supply, appalling sanitary conditions, lack of proper education, lack of food, along with unsympathetic managers, make life not worth living… Oh, no, Mr Paul, the A.P.B. is not doing the fine job you would have the public believe.”
In the 1940s, the APA shifted its position on the Board, campaigning for Aboriginal representatives on it rather than its abolition. In 1954 Gibbs was elected to a seat on the Board and became its first ever woman member. But once elected, she was frustrated by her lack of power, finding it impossible to properly inspect reserves and talk to the people there, as her only contact was through official tours.
Gibbs’ ASIO file shows her close relationship with Communists in this period. While Gibbs never joined the CPA, she was a regular attendee at Party meetings. ASIO agents kept a list of militant unionists associated with Gibbs and tracked her movements addressing workers at site meetings on the Sydney waterfront.
Ray Peckham was one of many young people inspired to take up activism by Gibbs in the 1950s. Peckham recounts first arriving in Sydney from Dubbo, and being taken immediately to Trades Hall to meet union activists and officials by Gibbs, who explained to him the importance of union support in the fight for their people.
After Bill Ferguson’s death Gibbs set up the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship (AAF) with other activists including Peckham, Charlie Leon and Faith Bandler in 1956 in an effort to broaden support for Aboriginal rights. The AAF was established, according to its constitution, to work towards “complete social and political equality” for Aboriginal people. It set in motion a long campaign for changes to the Australian constitution. It was strengthened by the affiliation and financial support of a number of trade unions.
The AAF convened a 1957 rally at Sydney Town Hall, launching a national petition for constitutional change. Pearl Gibbs organised over 500 Aboriginal people living in the Sydney area to take part.
In that same year she resigned her position on the Protection Board and secured funds from the Waterfront Workers Federation to establish a hostel for rural Aboriginal people to receive hospital treatment in Dubbo. She was employed as warden, and resided there until she died.
In her later years she continued her activism in Dubbo and spoke at state-wide conferences of the AAF.
The 1967 referendum won citizenship for Aboriginal people by an overwhelming majority of 90.77 percent.
By the late 1960s the APB was finally abolished, removing the “protection” legislation allowing for removal of Aboriginal children. But the forced removal of Aboriginal children (among other manifestations of the racist paternalism of the Australian state) continues today.
Pearl Gibbs’ demands for an end to racist discrimination and for self-determination and Aboriginal people’s control of their own lives are still to be won.
Recalling Pearl Gibbs’ persistence, the writer and activist Len Fox spoke fondly of how she “became a damned nuisance”. It is a reputation that socialists and anti-racists today should still aspire to.