Voices from the past: Aboriginal protests remembered

Esther Carroll was three when she was photographed in this groundbreaking image from the first Day of Mourning in 1938.

Now a spritely 78, what does she think of her family’s involvement in this controversial moment in Australia's history? ‘‘I just thought they were cheeky buggers,’’ she says.

The image, taken outside the Australian Hall on Elizabeth Street, is part of the exhibition Hereby Make Protest that aims to highlight the fighting spirit and challenging voices of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association from the 1920s and the Aborigines Progressive Association from the 1930s.

The day the photograph was taken, January 26, 1938, was the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet arriving in Australia. ‘‘It blows my mind to think, did I live that long?’’ says Carroll, a retired healthcare worker who lives in Enmore. She doesn’t remember the day, but she remembers the era, the conditions on the mission stations and how Aboriginal people were controlled.

The protest was organised by the APA to coincide with the anniversary "of the whiteman's seizure of our country" and protest against "the callous treatement of our people", calling for education, recognition as full citizens and equality. It is thought to be the first Aboriginal civil rights gathering.

Carroll is pictured with three of her siblings and her mother Louisa Agnes Ingram OAM. Also pictured are campaigners William Ferguson, Jack Patten and Jack Kinchela.

‘‘To me, they were brave men [and women],’’ says Carroll. ‘‘They could have been deprived of their rations, they could have been jailed, been ostracised. Mother was told by the police that she had a big mouth... the gameness, the insight they had to continue with that.’’

‘‘If this country can now look at that side of it and pay respects to it, I would be pleased about that.’’

Hereby Make Protest is part of a continuing social history program at Carriageworks. Curator Andrea James says places such as Australian Hall are locations people pass every day but have no idea of the historical significance ‘‘and what an audacious and very brave protest [this event] was at that time’’.

‘‘It’s an opportunity for us to really give thanks to the bravery and strength, and the fighting spirit of those men and women and to reflect upon for Aboriginal people, what we’ve gained, but also what is yet to come, what is still to be achieved," says James.

‘‘So many people know about Malcom X and all those American civil rights activists that are so well known, but it’s an absolute travesty that in Australia there were similar actions and similar men and women who are just not known about, and there’s so much for people to learn about their local history.’’

There are about 20 historical documents on show, on loan from the NSW State Library, but the main focus is on three commissioned works by indigenous artists. Jacob Nash has an installation featuring 700 ochre-dusted shoes, symbolising a protest march. Karla Dickens has embellished quilts and suits with traditional string and other items. Nicole Foreshew has created two video pieces, It Came From Them and Has Come From Somewhere.

Foreshew says: ‘‘It’s really important to have a continual dialogue and also a contemporary response, and to keep reinterpreting and questioning history.’’

Hereby Make Protest runs Tuesday, June 17-July 18, with an artist talk on July 12, see carriageworks.com.au. 

The story Voices from the past: Aboriginal protests remembered first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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