Politics and Activism
Numerous activists gathered, lived and agitated in the Newtown area. Considering its proximity to Redfern, and its working class population, there was clearly interaction and exchange between activists in Redfern and Newtown, as well as other city areas. Yet, in written records, it tends to be Redfern which is seen as ‘the place’ everything happened. Pearl Gibbs (Gambanyi) Activist Pearl Gibbs, who was born at La Perouse, was a Newtown resident in 1938, and possibly earlier. She moved several times as an adult, between Sydney, Brewarrina, Dubbo and the south coast especially Nowra and Berry, but returned to Sydney in 1937 to form the APA with Bill Ferguson, Jack Patten and others.
Gibbs spoke out about the way the Aboriginal Protection Board treated Aboriginal people, the treatment of girls in domestic service, and the racial prejudice suffered by Aboriginal people. She campaigned for citizenship rights for her people.
As well as speaking publicly in the Domain about the prejudice and injustice Aboriginal people were experiencing in NSW in the late 1930s, she spoke out on radio and in the press. Gibbs built connections between Aboriginal and women’s groups and in the process she was carefully widening support for Aboriginal issues and increasing pressure for change and reform.
For example, she spoke at an International Women’s Day conference at the Housewives Association rooms in Sydney while she was living at Newtown in 1938. Gibbs argued for Aboriginal representation on the bodies that influenced Aboriginal peoples lives. During her speech she drew attention to the 1938 Day of Mourning which she was involved in organising, and the lack of consideration shown to Aboriginal people about their experiences and feelings about the day their land was invaded.  She spoke forthright and challenging way about citizenship to her audiences. Gibbs stated powerfully: “What has any white man or woman done in this country to help my people, the aborigines?” continued the speaker ‘ The aborigines are now taking up the matter for themselves and asking for citizenship. It is not ridiculous or silly for them to ask for citizenship in a country that is their own.”
She drew attention to the extensive powers of The Aborigines’ Protection Board, which could remove Aboriginal children from their parents. Gibbs also drew attention to the overcrowding conditions at the Brewarrina reserve, where some Aboriginal families were living in one-roomed iron cottages with cement floors and where temperatures reached 120 degrees. Gibbs campaigned relentlessly to have conditions at Brewarrina improved and for an inquiry into the APB. She had seen conditions there first hand when she worked as a cook on the station. The inquiry into the APB occurred in 1937-1938.
She also raised urbanization as a central issue. Gibbs pointed out that Aboriginal people’s lives had changed, as had the availability of land:
“There is not a place where such a thing as giving them huge reservescould be carried out…Besides, what about the half-castes and quarter-castes, who have been brought up according to the method of the whites? I myself could not live as the aborigines did in the old days. ”
Gibbs fought for Aboriginal representation on the Aborigines’ Welfare Board and was appointed to the Board in 1954. She soon become frustrated at its limitations and sought other avenues for change.
She also worked with Faith Bandler, in the mid 1950s, in setting up the influential Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) when she was living in Newtown. Bandler recalled that Gibbs had pawned her wedding ring to see Faith in North Sydney about setting up an organization ‘free of party politics, church and charity’.
So, at a key point in her activist career, she was living in Newtown, though she was living at Nowra by 1940 and seems to have returned to Newtown in the 1950s.
Bill Onus, a central activist in the APA who worked with Pearl Gibbs, William Ferguson, Jack Patten and others, lived at Newtown in the late 1930s. Onus was a Wiradjuri man, born at Cumeragunja in 1906, and moved to Sydney in 1929. He lived for around 6 months at an unemployed workers camp (La Perouse) and went prospecting and then was back in Sydney in 1938. Michael Sawtell, a socialist activist and president of the Committee For Aboriginal Citizen Rights, (CACR) was seeking Aboriginal people as speakers for rights campaigns in Newtown, when he discussed Bill Ferguson’s work with Bill Onus around 1939. Sawtell encouraged Onus to join in the struggle for rights with the APA and the CACR, which was also campaigning to reform the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales. During that time, Onus drove vans delivering pianos and gas equipment, and lived in a flat in Newtown.
By late 1930s –40s Bill Onus was employed full-time by the APA as secretary. Onus used his organizational skills and political contacts, especially within the Labor Party and trade unions to achieve reform. He was an effective lobbyist, publicist and speaker, about racism in the provision of education for Aboriginal people, voting rights and against prejudice. Bill Ferguson often stayed with him in Newtown when he was returned to Sydney after travelling around the state to places like Moree and Dubbo, on APA business.
Onus moved to Melbourne around 1946 where he established Aboriginal Enterprises, a company which made boomerangs, cards and other products at Belgrave in the Dandenong ranges. He was central to the campaign in Victoria for a’ yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum.
See also Dulcie Flower and Michael Anderson (previously)
Other activists who lived and gathered in Newtown included Gwenda Jarrett who attended a FCAATSI conference in November 1970, along with well-respected activists such as Percy Mumbler of Nowra, Julie Whitton of Toomelah, Chicka Dixon of Sydney and Lyn Thompson of Sydney. Initially composed of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal members, FCAATSI was increasingly run by Aboriginal people, a sign of growing Aboriginal self-determination at this time.
Renowned activist, freedom rider, soccer player and author Charles Perkins bought a house in Newtown with his wife Eileen in 1998. This was after his key period of activism.
Feminist forums run at the Neighbourhood Centre at the Newtown Town Hall sometimes focussed on political and racial issues, as suggested by posters for events, such as the “Forum For Women: Black, Immigrant & Third World” in 1982.