Historical Figures

Pearl Gibbs, Aboriginal activist

Aboriginal activist, Pearl Gibbs (1901 – 1983) was involved in defending the rights of Aboriginal Australians between the 1920s and 1970s. She notably participated in the organization of the Day of Mourning, a day of protests, in 1938.

Australian Aboriginal

Daughter of Mary Margaret Brown and David Barry, Pearl Gibbs was born as Pearl Mary Brown in 1901, in the district of La Perouse in the south of Sydney; she is aboriginal through her mother. With her big sister Olga, Pearl grew up in an Australia which, after having been colonized by Great Britain since the 18 e century, has just federated into Commonwealth of Australia, as a dominion of the British Empire.

At 19 th century, Aboriginal revolts against colonization, in Australia and Tasmania, were bloodily repressed, with in retaliation blind and unpunished massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children. The beginning of the 20 e century is marked by strong segregation and significant discrimination. Many Aborigines are interned on white-run reservations, and do not have equal access to education, justice or employment. Many Aboriginal children – most often mixed race – are forcibly taken from their parents, placed in orphanages or foster families and radically cut off from their culture. And if Australia is the first country in the world to open, from 1901, the right to vote and to be elected to women, it does not extend it to Aborigines.

In Yass, 280 km southwest of Sydney, Pearl and her sister could not attend the city's public school, reserved for whites, and were sent to a segregated school. At seventeen, Pearl left school and moved with Olga to Sydney, where she was hired as a servant in a wealthy neighborhood. She marries an English sailor; the two will later separate, leaving the young woman alone to raise their daughter and two sons.

The beginnings of an activist

In Sydney, Pearl Gibbs meets Aboriginal girls and young women domesticated by the Aboriginal Protection Board ("Aboriginal Welfare Council"), institutions that sometimes tightly control the lives of Aboriginal people. Some testify to having been torn from their families and confide in them that they suffer from difficult working conditions. Coupled with her own experience of segregation and discrimination, these encounters shaped Pearl's activism. Horrified by the stories of these young forced laborers, she defends them in front of the council.

In 1930, as the Great Depression sweeps across the world, Pearl loses her job and has to live with her mother in an unemployed Aboriginal labor camp; she is involved in the management of the camp. After some time, she moved to Nowra, 170 km south of Sydney, to work in the pea harvest. There she became friends with the Aborigines of Lake Wallaga. Disgusted by the working and living conditions on the reserve, Pearl organizes strikes and protest actions.

Day of mourning

In 1936, the Australian parliament amended the Aborigines Protection Act of 1909, to give institutions more power to control Aboriginal lives. In response, the leader Aborigine William Ferguson launched the Aborigines Progressive Association the following year (“Aboriginal Progressive Association”). Pearl Gibbs is one of its first members, as well as one of the most committed. Bill Ferguson and APA President Jack Patten believe Pearl is best placed to speak to Aboriginal women and girls; she frequently speaks at demonstrations, and her speeches draw large crowds.

In 1938, Australia celebrated the 150 th anniversary of the First Fleet , the arrival of the first ships to found the first European colony in New South Wales. For the APA, this is an opportunity to draw public attention to the violence and discrimination suffered by Aborigines since the beginnings of European colonization. Pearl participates in the organization of the Day of mourning (“day of mourning”), a day of protest organized on January 26, 1938 in parallel with the official celebrations. Prior to the event, the APA sends out a press release mentioning:

“The 26th of January 1938 is not a day of rejoicing for Australia’s Aborigines; it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years’ so-called ‘progress’ in Australia also commemorates 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country. »
(January 29, 1938 is not a day of celebration for Australian Aborigines:it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years of so-called "progress" also commemorates 150 years of misery and degradation. imposed on the original inhabitants by the white invaders of this country).

The first Aboriginal on the radio

Shortly after, a falling out between Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten caused a split within the APA; Ferguson and Pearl retain responsibility for the APA in New South Wales. While Bill was elected president, Pearl Gibbs took the post of secretary of the association, which she kept until 1940. They created the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship , intended to obtain citizenship for Australian Aborigines.

In 1941, disappointed by Bill Ferguson and the lack of success achieved, Pearl moved to Port Kembla in New South Wales. The same year, she had the opportunity to become the first Aboriginal woman to give a speech broadcast on the radio, on the 2WL station. She speaks eloquently, in a speech carefully prepared for broadcast, on the situation of Aborigines and their access to citizenship.

“My people have had 153 years of the white man’s and white woman’s cruelty and injustice and unchristian treatment imposed upon us… Our girls and boys are exploited ruthlessly. (..). Many girls have great difficulty in getting their trust money. Others say they have never been paid. Girls arrive home with white babies. I do not know of one case where the Aborigines Welfare board has taken steps to compel the white father to support his child. The child has to grow up as an unwanted member of an apparently unwanted race. »
(My people have had 153 years of cruelty, injustice and un-Christian treatment inflicted by white men and white women… Our girls and boys are being exploited without mercy. (…) Many girls are struggling to recover their money. Others say they never got paid. Girls are going home with white babies. I haven't heard of a single instance where the Aboriginal Welfare Council has been concerned to compel the white father to support the child. The child must grow up as an unwanted member of a seemingly unwanted people.)

Australian Aboriginal Fellowship

Although no longer secretary of the APA, Pearl Gibbs continues her activism and publishes notably noticed articles in the Nowra Leader . In 1946, in Dubbo in New South Wales, she established with Bill Ferguson a branch of the APA of which she was vice-president, then secretary, in the 1940s and 1950s. Within the APA, she continued the struggle for Australian Aboriginal citizenship.

In this fight, Pearl focuses in particular on issues concerning women and girls:employment of Aboriginal girls as servants by the Aboriginal Welfare Council, segregation of schools and hospitals, health and social welfare. In all her commitments, she knows how to build relationships and use her many contacts to forge alliances or knock on the highest doors.

In 1956, Pearl co-founded with Aboriginal activist Faith Bandler the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship (AAF), an organization dedicated to facilitating cooperation between Aboriginal political groups and white sympathizers to their cause. She uses it in particular to forge alliances with professional unions in New South Wales.

A life of activism

In 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act stipulates that Aborigines can register and vote in federal elections, but equality of rights is far from achieved. Pearl remains politically active, notably campaigning for the return of land to Aborigines, which began in 1976 with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act . Witness the last interview she gave in a newspaper, in 1983:

“Pearl believes land rights for Aborigines is one of the answers to the problems facing the black and white communities. ‘Something must be done,’ she said. ‘There’s no good saying:“Give Australia back to the Aborigines.” That's not the answer. Certain portions of land should be returned to Aborigines. It will be many years before we get land rights and for states like NSW there will be a tough time ahead. »
(Pearl sees Aboriginal land rights as one of the solutions to the problems facing black and white communities. “Something has to be done,” she says. “It's not about saying:'Give Australia back to the Aborigines.' That is not the answer. Some land should be returned to the Aborigines. It will take many years to get the right to land and, for states like New Wales of the South, there are difficult times ahead.”

After a lifetime of activism, Pearl Gibbs died in Dubbo in April 1983, at the age of 81.