In 1925 an Aboriginal ‘man wrote from a far-back settlement, asking that someone should come and tell them about the “Freedom Club”’ (Macleay Chronicle, 19 August 1925). The man was clearly inspired with hope and enthusiasm as a result of the announcement of the formation in Sydney of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924. The AAPA is today recognized as the first modern united all-Aboriginal political organization to form in Australia.
The AAPA held four conferences between 1925 and 1928 and attracted widespread Aboriginal support and media coverage of their campaign for Aboriginal justice. They released a manifesto that outlined Aboriginal demands for rights to land and Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs. During their four years, the Aboriginal activists had very public confrontation with the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board and their supporters would attract the wrath of the police and government agencies.
Within only months of operation, the organization had attracted a membership of over 600, established 13 branches and four sub branches across the state. The excitement and support within Aboriginal communities was overwhelming. The Newcastle Sun reported that the ‘AAPA is the rainbow of promise to them, and is making a wonderful difference in the camps and settlements, where its radiant message has penetrated’ (7 October 1925). President of the AAPA, Fred Maynard (my grandfather), stated ‘it simply amazes me to see the interest the people are taking in the movement’ (The Voice of the North, 10 August 1925).
The AAPA developed a platform of demands and a ‘registered insignia shows a full-blooded [A]boriginal man with his boomerang, a kangaroo, and an emu on each side’ (Newcastle Sun, 7 October 1925). The insignia grounded the organization within an Aboriginal cultural context. It was surrounded with the words ‘Australia for Australians’. There could be no mistake about who the Australians were with this wording.
In much of their letters and correspondence Maynard always referred to Aboriginal people as ‘we the Australian people’ clearly recognizing the Aboriginal connection to the continent over and above all others. Fred was a charismatic and inspiring leader. He was recognized as an ‘orator of outstanding ability’. The Voice of the North predicted that ‘in the not far distant future [he] will loom large in the politics of this country’ (11 January 1926) and said that as ‘a public speaker he has few equals in the Commonwealth’ (12 October 1925).
The first AAPA conference was held at St David’s Church and Hall in Surrey Hills in April 1925. Over 200 enthusiastic Aboriginal people attended this conference, many having travelled vast distances across the state to be present. The AAPA was instantly front-page news with their demand for Aboriginal Self Determination. As President, Fred delivered a powerful and inspiring message in his inaugural address:
We aim at the spiritual, political, industrial and social. We want to work out our own destiny. Our people have not had the courage to stand together in the past, but now we are united, and are determined to work for the preservation for all of those interests which are near and dear to us (The Daily Guardian, 7 May 1925).
Six months later the AAPA held a second conference at Kempsey on the north coast of NSW. The conference was held at the showground and was conducted over three days. It was described as a ‘convention arranged and attended solely by [A]boriginals. The gathering was unique in the history of the State of Australia’. The press reports reveal that over 700 Aboriginal people attended and discussed issues over land, protecting their children, health, education, employment and housing (Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer, 10 November 1925; Australian Natives Association Journal, 7 January 1926). At the conference conclusion, Fred delivered a powerful resolution that was to be forwarded to all sections of government:
As it is the proud boast of Australia that every person born beneath the Southern Cross is born free, irrespective of origin, race, colour, creed, religion or any other impediment. We the representatives of the original people, in conference assembled, demand that we shall be accorded the same full right and privileges of citizenship as are enjoyed by all other sections of the community (The Macleay Chronicle, 7 October 1925).
The AAPA disappeared from public view in early 1928, although it remained active as an underground movement for a short time period during the 1930s. There were clearly a number of circumstances responsible for the demise of the AAPA including the onset of the Great Depression, threats against the Aboriginal leadership with their children and police threat and intimidation. Bill Ferguson, a prominent Aboriginal leader, was insistent that the AAPA was ‘hounded out of existence by the police acting for the Board’ (Jack Horner, 1994).
It is important to bear in mind that the Chairman of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board at the time was the NSW Police Commissioner. These threats are confirmed through a recently discovered 1927 interview with Fred saying:
he had been warned on many occasions that the doors of Long Bay [Gaol] were opening for him. He would cheerfully go to gaol for the remainder of his life, he declared, if, by so doing, he could make the people of Australia realise the truly frightful administration of the Aborigines Act (The Newcastle Sun, 7 December 1927).
In 1931, the Australian Communist Party published ‘Rights for Aborigines: Draft Program for the Struggle Against Slavery’. It added weight to Fred’s words that the AAPA was indeed broken up through police threat and intimidation:
Hitherto, the conditions of the Aborigines have not been considered by workers in the revolutionary movement, and the rank and file organisation set up by the [A]borigines was allowed to be broken up by the A.P.B., the missionaries, and the police (The Workers Weekly, 24 September 1931).
We are left today to recognize and remember these early Aboriginal freedom fighters who were prepared to bravely step forward to challenge the tight government control over Aboriginal lives. It is even more amazing that such history has for a long period lay forgotten and erased from Australian history and memory.
Post by Professor John Maynard
Professor John Maynard is a Worimi man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales. He is currently Director of the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle and Chair of Aboriginal History. He has held several major positions and served on numerous prominent organisations and committees.
Jack Horner (1994) Bill Ferguson: Fighter for Aboriginal Freedom, self published, Canberra.
John Maynard (2007) Fight for Liberty and Freedom, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.