Remembering Aboriginal leader William Ferguson

It’s been 80 years since the first recorded protest for civil rights in Australia, led by the Aboriginal community in what is now known as the “Day of Mourning”, 26 January 1938.

The Aboriginal organiser of the march, William (Bill) Ferguson, was a Wiradjuri man born in 1882 at Waddai, Darlington Point, New South Wales, to Scottish station labourer William Ferguson, known as “Old Bill”, and Emily Ferguson, an Aboriginal domestic worker.

Ferguson was raised with his six siblings in a region dominated by the pastoral industry, a booming sector engaged in the mass theft of Aboriginal land for the creation of stations and mansions that housed their rich owners.

Ferguson is commonly known for his role in establishing branches of the Aborigines Progressive Association across NSW to organise and fight for Aboriginal rights. Less known is his impressive history as a working class militant in the shearing sheds and railways for the Australian Workers Union, and the impact this had on his approach to fighting for Aboriginal rights.

Politics

The era into which Ferguson was born and which he lived through was one of intense racism and class struggle. The Half Caste Acts of Victoria and Western Australia and the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people around the country. The Aborigines Protection Board dictated most aspects of life, a gross injustice that remained a motivation for Ferguson’s political activism until his passing in 1950.

Ferguson grew up during the period of the great strikes of the 1890s. Mass campaigns of striking workers, from wharfies and shearers to labourers, transformed politics in eastern Australia. Class struggle was in the air.

The great strikes would have affected Ferguson, not only because his father worked in the shearing sheds, but also because Ferguson himself worked in the sheds from the age of 14 in 1896, collecting and piling wool. Here, Ferguson earned his stripes in the labour movement.

He quickly became a known orator and agitator in the sheds of NSW. “The athletic, chunky Scot and his dark skinned son, who grew like a beanstalk, tall and erect, [surprised] the older men with his persuasive talk”, wrote Jack Horner, author and Aboriginal rights campaigner.

Ferguson travelled the region, moving from stockyard to shearing shed in search of work. Little is heard of him during this period; only a few old union tags give some idea of where he stopped on his travels.

He resurfaced in 1916, the same year he joined the Australian Labor Party. From 1916 to the 1920s, Ferguson remained active in the labour movement. The period was also one of increasing attacks on the Aboriginal population, the state government ramping up the kidnapping of Aborigines from stations and towns across NSW.

The Aborigines Protection Board

The Aborigines Protection Board was known as the “persecution board” by the Aboriginal community, and Ferguson became one of its most active and outspoken critics. From sending stolen Aboriginal children to slave-driving convents or boarding homes, to “missions” such as Cabbage Tree Island being decimated by tuberculosis and various other preventable diseases, the Protection Board was anything but what its title suggested.

The board would appoint a “mission manager” and his partner to run the corrugated iron townships. “Slum lord” would be a better characterisation. Often, the government wouldn’t bother employing managers; it would appoint the local police sergeant to run the reserves, giving him the right to deny access to visitors, quarantine rations and forcibly evict people if they got too rebellious.

In 1923, at Christmas/New Year’s celebrations in Gulargambone – on the Cuckoo Corner Property, a place of annual gathering for the local Aboriginal community – Ferguson met with young Aboriginal victims of the Protection Board. They told stories of their experiences being “expelled” from their communities for “idleness”, a policy used to drive young Aboriginal men and women into precarious and often indentured labour. Here Ferguson declared:

“The Board in Sydney has a complete control of us; they can do anything. One day we will have a full inquiry made into these activities of the Protection Board … I’ve been a member of the union since I was a lad, picking up, and a member of the Labor Party since 1916, when I formed the new Trades and Labour Council in this town. I’ve my faith in the labour movement to help us; it is a workers’ organisation, and we are all of us workers here!”

Day of Mourning

The Protection Board had the backing of the state in all its forms. Ferguson recognised this and the need to get organised. This culminated in the 1937 re-establishment of the Aborigines Progressive Association in Dubbo, NSW, with Aboriginal activists Pearl Gibbs, Jack Kinchela and John Patten (there were plenty more but unnamed).

The association’s core demands were social and economic equality for Aboriginal people, Aboriginal emancipation, an inquiry into the Protection Board and Aboriginal representation on it. Ferguson had gained the support of Aboriginal activist William “Bill” Cooper, who had been petitioning King George V since 1935 for Aboriginal representation in the federal parliament.

The government dismissed the petition. In outrage and frustration, Cooper called a national meeting of Aboriginal activists for November 1937 to discuss the way forward. The Day of Mourning Protest was born. The Progressive Association and supporters marched 150 years after invasion, on the streets of Sydney, to demand justice, equality and an end to the racist policies imposed on Aboriginal people by the Protection Board.

Ferguson and Patten published a pamphlet, “Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!”, which criticised the government for “deliberately trying to exterminate Aboriginal people under the banner of ‘care and protection’”. They demanded a federal Aboriginal policy – most policies relating to Aboriginal people at this time were managed by state and territory governments. The call gained a response. The prime minister contacted Ferguson to arrange a meeting.

The struggle brought about what many saw as progress for Aboriginal rights. The Protection Board was “reformed” in 1940 and given a new name, the Aborigines Welfare Board. Yet it carried on with the same racist paternalism.

Ferguson later broke with the Labor Party after the Chifley government rejected his demands for more reforms. He passed away after giving a speech in 1950. The legacy that Ferguson and the activists of the Aborigines Progressive Association left is a blueprint for Aboriginal rights activists today: get organised, demand solidarity and never stop fighting.

Ferguson’s dreams of a liberated people are yet to be met; that is our task in the here and now.