- Honour Roll
Also known as Gambayani, Pearl Gibbs was born in Botany Bay in 1901. She grew up in Brewarrina and Yass in rural New South Wales, attending segregated schools before going into domestic service in Sydney in 1917. It was there that she witnessed the exploitation and injustice which led her to a lifetime campaign for justice.
In the 1920s, she married an English sailor named Gibbs. They later separated, leaving Pearl to raise their daughter and two sons. She was always a leader and in the early 1930s organised strikes by farmhands for fair conditions as well as other campaigns. She was frustrated by her attempts to work through the Aborigines' Protection Board, so she spoke directly to politicians and reached the community through talks on radio.
In 1937, she joined William Ferguson in forming the Aborigines' Progressive Association which organised the Day of Mourning in 1938 on the 150th anniversary of the British 'invasion'. She was part of the deputation to Prime Minister Lyons. One of their aims was to abolish the Aborigines' Protection Board, which they believed had pursued a policy of prejudice and persecution.
She drew large crowds when she spoke in public because she spoke with such fluency and passion. In 1954, she became the first female representative on the renamed New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board and was more convinced of the need to dismantle it.
Pearl was convinced that the so-called 'Aboriginal problem' was actually a white person's problem and that a coalition of white and black people was needed in order to overcome the situation. Accordingly, she called on her friend Faith Bandler, and they founded the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, a political body campaigning for citizenship rights for Aborigines. Included in the group were feminists, left-wing activists, Jewish refugees from Nazism and poets including Mary Gilmore.
In 1957, activist and communist, Jessie Street, initiated a petition which the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship endorsed calling for a referendum to delete the 'discriminatory clauses' from the Constitution. Following a ten-year campaign they achieved success with an overwhelming 'yes' vote in the 1967 federal referendum.
Pearl established the first hostel for Aboriginal hospital patients and their families in Dubbo in 1960. She attended most major Aboriginal conferences in New South Wales untilher health began to fail. She was an active contributor to meetings in the 1970s which pressured the government to act on land rights legislation.
Pearl's great skill was establishing networks or coalitions for change through which action could be organised. She was a pioneer of many Aboriginal organisations. Activist Len Fox commended her effort, "She persisted in every way she knew. She wrote to the papers - she spoke out, she interviewed people, she worried people, she annoyed people, she became a damned nuisance. She persisted and still persisted."
She died on 28 April 1983 at Dubbo, New South Wales.
Reviewed 26 May 2022