Community engagement

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Margaret Tucker MBE(C)

Margaret Tucker1904-1996

A leading figure of the 20th century

Margaret Tucker, or Aunty Marg, was one of Australia’s earliest female Aboriginal activists and a leading figure of the 20th Century. Her optimism and unflagging work ethic helped fuel a movement that won rights once considered unimaginable for Aboriginal people in Victoria and around Australia.

Margaret was born at Warangesda Mission in New South Wales in 1904. Her parents, William Clements, a Wiradjuri man, and Teresa (née Middleton), a Yorta Yorta woman, had four daughters. Margaret was the eldest.

Much of Margaret’s childhood was spent at the Cummeragunja and Moonacullah Missions, near the Victorian-New South Wales border. She and her sisters learnt about traditional customs and language from their mother and great grandmother, although mission rules prohibited any overt expression of their culture.

At the age of 13 years, Margaret and her sister May were taken against their mother’s wishes from Moonacullah Mission to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in New South Wales. . Many, like Margaret, were placed in homes and trained for a life of domestic service. It would be years before Margaret would see her family again.

After three years at Cootamundra, 16-year-old Margaret began several years of domestic work. She suffered abuse at the hands of her first employer and was subsequently placed with a more compassionate family. After attempting to run away, Margaret was sent to a sheep station near Walgett, where she remained for three years.

In 1925, Margaret was released from service and moved to Melbourne. The Depression years saw people flock to the city in search of work. There was little to be found. Margaret was among the first Aboriginal people from rural missions and reserves to settle in inner city Fitzroy and its surrounding suburbs. Together they established a social and political centre from which many important Aboriginal organisations and community leaders emerged.

Margaret married Phillip Tucker and together they had a daughter, Mollie, in 1927. Margaret made a living working in factories. At the same time, she became an Aboriginal rights activist alongside other ex-Cummeragunja residents, including William Cooper, Bill and Eric Onus and Sir Douglas Nicholls. In 1932, she was a founding member and treasurer of the Australian Aborigines League, one of the first Aboriginal-run organisations in Australia. It campaigned in support of citizenship rights for Aboriginal people.

As the push for equality gained momentum, Margaret dedicated herself to the cause. On Australia Day in 1938, as the nation celebrated 150 years of settlement, she joined League members and others in organising a ‘National Day of Mourning’ in Sydney. Its intention was to highlight the impact of European arrival on those people to whom the land had belonged. In more recent times, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) has developed this idea into a week-long national celebration of Aboriginal culture.

In 1939, when 200 residents at Cummeragunja Mission walked off in protest against the conditions there, Margaret ran a campaign to raise money for food and blankets, which she delivered to those camped defiantly on the riverbank near Barmah Forest.

With the advent of the Second World War, the community’s priorities shifted. Margaret’s husband was a serviceman and she threw herself into the war effort. She worked at a Footscray rope maker and then at a munitions factory. She also organised concerts to raise money for the Red Cross. Admired for her beautiful singing voice, Margaret entertained servicemen at a military hospital in Heidelberg. All the while, she continued to support local families in and around Fitzroy.

It was Margaret’s idea to hold the first Aboriginal Debutante Ball in 1949. It became an important annual fundraiser, as well a source of dignity and pride for young Aboriginal girls. The tradition she established continues to empower young Aboriginal women to this day.

By the 1950s, Margaret was a highly respected and influential community leader, who delivered rousing speeches to crowds gathered under the Morton Bay fig in Carlton Gardens.

She became a valued member of the Aborigines Advancement League, the successor to the Australian Aborigines League she had helped establish. After the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) was established in 1958, Margaret was a fixture at its annual conferences and encouraged participation among others. She was also invited to America to speak about Aboriginal issues in 1957.

Margaret proved adept at working constructively with government. In 1964, she became the first woman to be appointed to the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board. In 1968, she was the first Aboriginal woman to join the Commonwealth’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. She also served on the Aboriginal Land Council of Victoria and the Victorian Government’s Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee. Margaret worked alongside her sister Geraldine Briggs to form the Victorian Aboriginal and Islander Women’s Council towards the end of the 1960s. It went on to become a national body, led by Geraldine (Geraldine Briggs was among the first group of 20 Aboriginal Victorians to be inducted to the Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll in 2011).

In 1973, Margaret’s leadership and support played a vital role in establishing the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. She was also a patron of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, which was established by her daughter, Mollie, just one of the many people for whom Margaret was a role model. Vulnerable young Aboriginal women have found refuge at the Margaret Tucker Hostel since 1983.

In 1968, Margaret was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil). In 2001, she was inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, among the first to receive the honour. Published in 1977, her autobiography, If everyone cared, is seen as an important account of the early policies of child removal. Margaret also featured in the acclaimed documentary Lousy Little Sixpence, broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She passed away in 1996.

Despite the challenges and hardships she faced Aunty Marg  focused her energies on creating a more equal and understanding society. Whether through her own actions, or those of future generations inspired by her life, she undeniably succeeded. 

Aunty Marge never let the injustices suffered by her people embitter her and instead focused her energies on creating a more equal and understanding society. Whether through her own actions, or those of future generations inspired by her life, she undeniably succeeded.