HerStory Archive

GIBBS, Pearl Mary

Also known as: Gambanyi

Born: 1901

Died: 28/4/1983

Aboriginal or Torrest Stait Islander: Yes

Special Achievements:

Pearl Gibbs was an Aboriginal leader and fought all her life for the rights of Indigenous Australians.  Her mother, Mary Margaret Brown, was born in Brewarrina.  Her mother was Maria, an Aboriginal woman of the Ngemba or Muruwari language.

Pearl Gibbs attended a racially segregated school in country New South Wales and later worked as a domestic servant in Sydney.  Here she met Aboriginal girls who had been removed from the country homes unwillingly and had been 'apprenticed' or indentured by the Aborigines Protection Board as domestic servants.  Disturbed by their position, she tried to help them by acting as an advocate with the board.

Later,when her life's circumstances had changed and she was living at an unemployment camp at Happy Valley near La Perouse in Sydney in the early years of the Depression, she became more acutely aware of the Aborigines Protection Board as police tried to reduce contact between the unemployed workers and the nearby reserve community.  With her mother and stepfather she picked peas  at Nowra (New South Wales) to eke out a living away from the Board's control. She encouraged residents at the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal reserve to defy the Board manager's control over their income, and helped pea pickers to seek better conditions.

New legislation in 1936 widened the Aborigines Protection Board's powers to allow the confinement of anyone "apparently having an admixture of aboriginal blood" at one of its managed stations.  This change meant that Pearl was now covered by the legislation.  In 1937 she travelled to Sydney and began work for the fledgling Aborigines Progressive Association with Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten.

Pearl was one of the few women, white or black, who spoke in political forums and, conscious of the importance of media coverage, she ensured that journalists were kept informed.  In 1941, Pearl Gibbs became the first Aboriginal woman to be broadcast on state radio when she gave a talk on Radio 2WL in Wollongong. 

She was one of the organisers for the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day 1938.  Over the next 13 years Pearl Gibbs worked hard as an organiser for the Aborigines Progressive Association.  In 1954 she became the first woman to be appointed to the Aborigines Welfare Board (the renamed Aborigines Protection Board), elected to the seat that was assigned to an appointee from the Aboriginal community.  During the three years of her term, she became increasingly angry at the bureaucracy and ignorance that pervaded the workings of the Board.

In 1956, Gibbs drew together significant people and sparked the formation of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which was an energetic and stimulating advocate for Aboriginal rights and a fertile meeting place for black and white activists until the late 1960s.

Additional Information:

Excerpt from a speech by Pearl Gibbs, Woman Today, Aprils 1938.  Quoted on Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, 1999. The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights.   Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 92.

" Ladies and Gentlemen, I am an Australian, I have lived here all my Life.  I love my country and I love its People.  I wish something more for them than Riches and Prosperity.  I wish for their greatness and nobility.  A country needs be great that is Just...

We aboriginal women are intelligent enough to ask for the same citizenship rights and conditions of life as our white sisters.  Those of my race who understand our economic conditions have not a great faith in what the white man promises to do for us.  We know that we must carry on the fight ourselves.

As the grand-daughter of a full bloodied aboriginal woman, and having lived and been with them as much as I have been with white people, I realise the cruel and unjust treatment, also the starvation that my beloved people, the aboriginals, exists under.  I myself have been on compounds that are controlled by the Aborigines' Protection Board of NSW.  The aged and sick, no proper education for the children -- is there any wonder that my aboriginal people are broken-hearted and discouraged at such shocking conditions!

Ah! My white sisters, I am appealing to you on behalf of my people to raise your voices with ours and help us to a better deal in life ...in a word to grant them all the rights and responsibilities of DEMOCRACY".


Resources

  • Image - Summer camp for Far West aboriginal children, La Perouse

    Aborigines' Welfare Board (l to r): J.R. Mullins (Sect.), Prof. A.P. Elkin, Superintendent J.D. McAuley, Pearl Gibbs, M.H. Saxby (Superintendent of Aborigines Welfare), Dr G.J. Cummins; sitting, Stan Wyatt MLA, E.G. Wright MLC Published in Dawn Feb 1955, p.13

    Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, [IE2088072]