Imagine sacrificing your life for your country, going off to fight for them in a war, getting captured and becoming a POW.
You survive, and return to Australia. You go out for a drink with your digger mates to celebrate, but are refused entry to the local RSL – you have to wait outside alone while they all get drunk.
This happened to “Cobar Bill” Williams, an Indigenous World War I soldier who was a hero in the trenches, but a second class citizens upon his return home.
Cobar Bill’s great-grand-niece Madison Penrith will be sharing her knowledge of the long-neglected history of Aboriginal Australian soldiers like Cobar Bill at the Griffith ANZAC Day service at Memorial Park at 11am on Tuesday.
In 2015, Madison was one of four students from Griffith High to travel to Turkey to celebrate the centenary of The ANZAC landing in Gallipoli. All students had to do a research project, so Madison chose to focus on Indigenous soldiers, some of whom were related to her. She found out about their contribution to the efforts in World War I and II, as well as the injustice of their treatment when they arrived back home.
“They were treated as brothers to the white soldiers in the trenches. It was as if during wartime racial barriers and prejudice were forgotten. But when they arrived home, the barriers went back up and they were treated badly for so many decades after,” Madison said.
Madison’s great great grandfather and great great uncle fought in WWI and five of her great uncles fought in WWII.
For many years after the World Wars, Aboriginal contributions to war efforts were not recognised at ANZAC services or museums. This was something Madison’s father, Roger, helped to rectify in the MIA. He worked with the Griffith War Memorial Musuem to organise showcasing the history of Aboriginal soldiers.
The museum sought feedback from the Griffith Aboriginal community, which resulted in the creation of an Aboriginal Nominal Role – which now includes 400 people from within a 400km radius of Griffith.
A project is now underway to get funding for a permanent monument or plaque to acknowledge the involvement of Aboriginal soldiers who have fought for Australia.
Madison, now 18, says she’s happy to live in an era were people are more likely to be treated equally. But she still sees racism, albeit in a more subtle form than before.
“I don’t notice it much when I am out with my mum, but with my darker-skinned dad, it’s still there. When we’re in shops I can tell people are keping a closer eye on us.”
Madison is currently studying psychology. She hopes to one day work at the Aboriginal Medical Service.
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