Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Gibbs (1901-1983), Aboriginal leader known also as Gambanyi (in Ngiyamba), was a daughter of Maggie Brown and stepdaughter of Dick Murray, both from Brewarrina. Pearl grew up round Yass (where her mother worked as a domestic servant) and later in the Brewarrina area. She attended racially-segregated schools at Yass and Cowra but otherwise the family avoided direct control by the Aborigines Protection Board, living only briefly on Brewarrina 'Mission' and privately arranging employment for Pearl and her sister Olga in Sydney as domestics in 1917. Through the 1920s Pearl worked as a maid and cook and married an English sailor named Gibbs. They later separated, leaving Pearl to raise their daughter and two sons.

Politically active in the late 1920s Pearl assisted Aboriginal 'apprentices' (girls indentured by the Aborigines Protection Board as domestics), then in the early 1930s organised strikes among Aboriginal pea pickers at Nowra. At Wallaga Lake in the mid 1930s, she experienced Board control and, again, organised protests. From 1937, Pearl became a major figure in the Aboriginal political network as it re-established itself after the depression. She was an early member of the Aborigines' Progressive Association, appearing at meetings in Sydney's Domain, drawing large crowds because a woman speaker was rare and because Pearl spoke with such fluency and passion. During this campaign for full citizen rights and an end to the Aboriginal Protection Board, Pearl concentrated on issues directly involving women: 'apprenticeships', school segregations, health, hospital segregation and the meagre Board rations. She successfully lobbied many women's organisations, including the Sydney Feminist Club, and made wider alliances with centre and left political groups than other Aboriginal activists in New South Wales at that time.

Pearl was involved in organising the Day of Mourning on the 26 January 1938 to protest the invasion, then took a prominent part in the subsequent deputation to Prime Minister J. A. Lyons. While secretary of the all-Aboriginal Aborigines' Progressive Association from 1938-40, Pearl steered a middle way between regionally-based factions, and sustained her activities despite the setback to the movement when it became clear in 1939 that there would be no real changes in the 'new' Aborigines Welfare Board. Pearl spoke frequently for the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, a predominantly white organisation formed in 1938 to mobilise public opinion. Broadcasting over Sydney and Wollongong radio in June 1941 and writing for the press in 1942, she supported Northern Territory Aborigines in their widely publicised conflicts with a frontier 'justice' system and called for Aboriginal representation on the New South Wales Welfare Board.

In 1946 Pearl established the first formal link between Aborigines in two states when she and Bill Ferguson set up the Dubbo branch of the Australian Aborigines' League, the Melbourne-based body founded by William Cooper in 1933. After being vice-president then secretary of this branch, Pearl became, in 1953, the organising secretary for a new Melbourne-based Council for Aboriginal Rights, while intensifying her campaign against discrimination in rural areas and attacking the Welfare Board. In 1954 she was elected as the Aboriginal member of the Board and its only woman member. Although she stayed till 1957, Pearl found this position frustrating: she was denied access to Board- controlled reserves and excluded from the real decision-making processes of the male bureaucrats and academics who made up the rest of the Board.

In March 1956 Pearl and Faith Bandler established the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship, a New South Wales body which included both Aboriginal and white members and which affiliated to the first national Aboriginal organisation, the Federal Council of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. While vice-president of the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship, Pearl's fine organisational ability and wide contacts enabled the high Aboriginal attendance at the public rally in Sydney in 1957 which opened the campaign to remove the discriminatory clauses in the federal constitution, a goal achieved in 1967. After establishing the first hostel for Aboriginal hospital patients and their families, in Dubbo in 1960, Pearl continued her political activities, organising a Fellowship conference in 1965 and then attending most major Aboriginal conferences in New South Wales until failing health limited her travelling. She was an active contributor to the meetings throughout the 1970s which established an independent New South Wales Land Council and then pressured the state government towards land rights legislation.

Pearl Gibbs' legacy endures. She nurtured organisations through difficult times, building lasting links between Aboriginal communities and between Aboriginal organisations and a wide range of allies. Her astute judgements and her insistence on principle stimulated debate inside and outside the Aboriginal movement and fuelled the struggle for justice. As Kevin Gilbert has said of her: 'She lived and breathed, ached and bled Aboriginal politics.' Yet Pearl saw her commitment to Aboriginal rights as part of a struggle for human rights and inter- national peace. She was a powerful advocate for justice for all Aborigines, whether in the south-east or in remote areas, and she was particularly significant in focussing attention on the way Aboriginal women bore the brunt of poverty and oppressive policies.

Heather Goodall

Aboriginal History 1983 pp 1-22.