From Little Things

25 June, 2010

Members of FCAATSI visit Melbourne Museum.
L-R back: Dr Jan Richardson, Dr Sue Taffe, Pauline Pickford and Helen Pickford. Front: Dr Barry Christophers and Peggy Christophers.
Source: Museum Victoria

Important figures in the history of the Aboriginal rights struggle visited Melbourne Museum on 18 June to see the new travelling exhibition From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The exhibition is based in part upon the work of historian Dr Sue Taffe, who compiled an oral history of the executive members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). FCAATSI was formed in 1958 to unite state bodies in an effort to remove discriminatory state legislation relating to Aboriginal health, wages, voting rights, land rights and more. “It’s really astonishing what these people have done,” said Dr Taffe, who visited with Dr Barry Christophers, Pauline Pickford and Jan Richardson.

Pauline campaigned to save Lake Tyers and helped publicise the disgraceful flogging of an Aboriginal boy by a white pastor at Hopevale Mission. This resulted in the first verdict against a a mission superintendent in Queensland.

Dr Barry Christophers was at one of the founding members of FCAATSI and attended its first meeting in 1958. Dr Christophers, a GP in Melbourne, worked with Joe McGinness, president of FCAATSI for most of its operation, to change the federal tuberculosis (TB) legislation that was discriminatory against Aboriginal people. “If you got TB in 1960, and you happened to be in Queensland and Aboriginal, you got no support,” explained Dr Taffe, “If you were white, you got a very good allowance while you recovered so you didn’t go out in the community and expose other people.” With evidence collected by Joe McGinness from TB sufferers, their efforts had forced the discriminatory clause to be removed from the Tuberulosis Act.

Dr Jan Richardson recalled her life of activism with husband Stan Davey, who was a driving force behind the establishment of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League in 1957. Jan and Stan fought to return land to people cast out of the former Forrest River Mission. Life was difficult in the west but it was made harder by ostracism by white Western Australians. ‘The townsfolk thought if they could deny us accommodation or a job, Stan would have to go,” said Jan. “In those days, white women were ‘good little white women’ and they thought I was a good little white woman! So I could always get a job!” In addition to their work in the field, Jan and Stan’s networks of activists across Australia meant that evidence of discrimination was quickly transmitted around the country where it could do the most good.

Said Jan of the exhibition, “what I see when I mix with all these wonderful people, and see the photos, is the hardship that people were willing to endure for their principles. Bringing about social and economic change didn’t just happen. It happened because of years and years of consistent determination. The people in that exhibition are the building blocks of the world we see today which still needs to be changed, but it’s beyond recognition from the conditions of 40 years ago.”

From Little Things Big Things Grow celebrates the people who took part in fight for justice for Aboriginal people and examines some key moments of Aboriginal activism, such as the 1938 Day of Mourning and Protest, the 1965 Freedom Ride, the Gurindji ‘walk-off’, and the 1967 Referendum. It was produced by the National Museum of Australia and is on at the Jumbunna Gallery, Bunjilaka, until 7 November 2010. An accompanying website, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, expands upon the exhibition content.  

Comments (5)

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Brian T. Manning 13 July, 2010 23:00
Indeed,I recall Dr Barry Christophers was a prolific contributor to the 'letters to the Editor' of the Northern Territory News in the late fifties into the sixties. I called on him in Melbourne in 1960 where he loaded me up with material from the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights, including their Constitution. I amended their COnstitution to form the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights which became the catalyst that fostered the Gurindji people in their fight for equality and Land Rights. The determination and dedication of these folks rippled through to be felt as far away as Wattie Creek.
Dr Jo Wainer AM 18 July, 2010 19:28
jan and stan davey should be national heroes. they dedicated their life to work with Indigenous people in the outback of WA and the NT. for 15 years they lived with tribal aborigines, acting as intermediaries with the white world, sharing their living conditions and hardships. they had two children during this time and raised them while doing life-changing work. jan could talk with the aboriginal women because they sat on the earth beneath the baobab tree breastfeeding their babies together. they had no money and little income, were ostracised by whites and denied jobs and accommodation. jan's family sent food and clothing and money to help keep them going, and jan and stan took whatever work they could get to survive. their work made a difference to many lives.
Denis Murrell 13 November, 2010 16:46
Stan taught at Boronia High School on the outskirts of Melbourne in the early 1960's. He was one of my students and the first to advise us of the state of living conditions in aboriginal communities. When, out of the blue, he brought Pastor Doug Nichols to speak to us one day, it was the first time I'd ever heard an aboriginal Australian speaking and the only the second time I'd actually seen an aboriginal Australian in the flesh. Sometimes his lessons were eye-openers. At other times it seemed as though he'd lost interest in teaching us because of the general apathy in the class to what he had to say. My feeling was that Stan didn't really enjoy his time at Boronia High but I believe he is well remembered by many of the students of that time.
Peter Adamson 8 December, 2010 20:17
Vale Stan Davey. I followed Stan and DR Jan Richardson into Fitzroy Crossing and saw just a small part of the work they had initiated and the results, these two people should be deeply honoured by all Australians for what they have done.
Michelle Smith 23 January, 2013 16:44
Sue and I spent many hours together when she worked on the Oral History of FCAATSI project in partnership with us - Koori Arts Collective Ltd. Sue, Hartley Briggs and Leanne Miller travelled together to interview FCAATSI members. It is wonderful to have this history remembered. It was one of our most memorable projects.
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