This photo tells a story.
This week my son Chris presented Riverbank Frank Doolan with an artwork he’s done of Bill Ferguson – he’s the bronze figure in the picture. The painting is Chris’s version of the famous photo taken of Bill standing in Elizabeth street in Sydney on Australia Day 1938 with a group of supporters. His quiet but forceful protest called attention to the sad fact that the Aboriginal peoples of our country were yet to be recognised as citizens.
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Both Chris and Frank are proud that they grew up in the town of Bourke in Western NSW. Like Bill, they had parents strong in the Christian faith, but their paths to personal belief took them through experiences that were worlds apart. Now they both enjoy telling genuine stories – the kind that change us.
Bill Ferguson’s Scottish dad was a shearer, a fighter and a travelling preacher – not necessarily in that order – and he passed these things on to his son. He followed the teachings of the carpenter from Nazareth and taught young Bill to do the same. His Mum Emily was a Wiradjuri woman who raised her son to own both his cultures. Bill was trained by the Shearers Union and experiences travelling and working in the backcountry over the next four decades developed him into an Australian leader. That’s why the city of Dubbo placed his statue in the town centre in 2018, not far from St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where Bill was a valued elder.
There are other statues of Aboriginal influencers who put their lives on the line for the freedoms that make Australia great. In 2019, the figure of Trooper Jack Pollard was unveiled on the shore of Lake Galilee in Israel. It’s the reminder of brave Aboriginal Light Horsemen who fought in World War One, while they were still not accepted as citizens in their own country. Jack’s kneeling beside his horse over the grave of a mate and in his left hand is his New Testament.
A hundred kilometres south, Bill Cooper, the Christian elder statesman of the Aboriginal rights movement, has been recognised by the Jewish people for his courage in taking a letter of protest to the German Consulate in Melbourne in 1938. This Yorta Yorta man joined others who were protesting Hitler’s brutal attack on the Jews. In 2008, trees were planted in his honour in the Martyrs Forest outside Jerusalem. Closer to home, a statue that captures the moment where he handed over the petition was unveiled in 2018 in Shepparton Victoria.
Pastor Sir Douglas Nichols stood with both these men seeking justice for his people. In his day, Doug was a celebrated AFL footballer with Fitzroy. He and his wife Gladys were raised on Cummeragunga Aboriginal station near Echuca along with Bill Cooper and they both shared his active faith. They played an instrumental part in the 1967 referendum movement that realised his hopes and were much loved for their work relieving the suffering of the poor in the streets of Melbourne. The sculpture of Sir Douglas and Lady Nichols was dedicated in 2007 in the gardens of Victoria’s Parliament House.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of images of David Unaipon change hands all across the country. Because of his brilliant design skills, he’s been dubbed ‘the Leonardo Da Vinci’ of Australia and that’s why his face identifies the $50 note. David was an Aboriginal Australian of the Ngarrindjeri people, a preacher, inventor and author. Perhaps his most important contribution was helping to break many Aboriginal stereotypes. His favourite watchword was, ’In Christ Jesus, colour and racial distinctions disappear.’
All of these men and women experienced unfairness. All of them, in their own way, worked to advance Australia by making it fairer. All of them found renewed strength in following Jesus who was treated unfairly, but made the world fairer by teaching us to forgive. All of them have only received fair recognition in recent years.
My friend Riverbank Frank loves to challenge audiences with the lines from the song, ‘I am, you are, we are Australians!’ Together with Chris, he would urge that at this stage of our history, we need to share the determination of these Aboriginal men and women to keep writing stories of fairness and forgiveness on every page - things that advance Australia towards being one and free.
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.