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Aboriginal History Committee’s call to ‘Save Our Site’

Aboriginal History Committee, 1996

SOS the Aboriginal History Committee is calling for your support to save the Sydney site of the 1938 "Day of Mourning and Protest" Aboriginal Conference.

What was the day of mourning?

On January 26, 1938, amidst the sesquicentenary celebrations, a courageous and dedicated group of 100 Aboriginal men and women gathered in Sydney's Australia Hall to mourn the loss of their lands and to demand the same basic rights as the rest of the population.

It was the first national Aboriginal civil rights gathering. They called it the "Day of Mourning and Protest".

In the political climate prevailing in the 1930s, the activists who participated in this action risked severe penalties and reprisals. The harsh laws that governed the lives of Aboriginal people at the time made the organisation of such a protest very hard. In those days, Aboriginal people were forced to carry a pass to control their whereabouts. Free movement was restricted.

The civil rights leaders who organised the protest drove around in a beaten old car to publicise the meeting. On several occasions, they were thrown out of missions and reserves by white managers when they tried to address the Aboriginal residents.

The protest was a pivotal historic event which set the agenda for the contemporary Aboriginal political movement.

The visionary demands made at the meeting influenced momentous changes including; the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Board and similar agencies empowered with the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the extension of voting rights, the 1967 referendum, Land Rights Legislation, N.A.I.D.O.C. Commemorations, the Native Title Bill and improvements in the areas of education, employment and health.

What's happening to the "Day of Mourning" site?

Today, the site of the 1938 "Day of Mourning" protest still stands proud in Elizabeth Street, Sydney. It is now known as the Cyprus-Hellene Club, and the old Australian Hall until recently was known as the Mandolin Cinema. However, the building is threatened with demolition. The owners plan to sell it for re-development.

The Aboriginal History Committee is campaigning for a Permanent Conservation Order (PCO) to be placed on the building as a site of historic significance. This campaign has the support of hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations, communities and individuals across Australia.

Many descendants of the 1938 activists travelled long distances to be present at a recent "Save Our Site" rally in Sydney. People cried openly when they entered the building.

The significance of the building is also recognised by the Australian Heritage Commission, the National Trust and the Sydney City Council. In May 1995, a Commission of Inquiry was held to evaluate the significance of the site, and 17 of the 22 submissions presented endorsed the call for a PCO.

Now, the decision lies in the hands of the NSW Minister for Urban Affairs & Planning. The Minister's heritage advisory body, the NSW Heritage Council, has recommended the issue of the PCO – but the Minister has the decisive power.

Why a PCO?

Only a Permanent Conservation Order (PCO) can protect the building.

This is the first bid for a PCO under the NSW Heritage Act for a site of Aboriginal historical significance. In contrast, there are 629 PCOs protecting sites of white heritage in NSW.

The campaign to save tbe "Day of Mourning" site is not simply about preserving a building.

It is also about changing the notion that Aboriginal history ended with colonisation and that Aboriginal heritage is limited to the remnants of pre-1788 life. Until now Aboriginal heritage claims have been pursued under the National Parks & Wildlife Act.

It is about obtaining equal opportunity for legislative recognition under the NSW Heritage Act for Aboriginal heritage.

It is about raising the status of Aboriginal history and duly valorising Aboriginal history-makers, historic events and historic places.

We consider that the best way the NSW State Government can truly valorise Aboriginal history in this case is to place the heritage signifcance of this site ahead of development interest and to grant a PCO.

What is our objective for this site?

Our primary objective is to obtain a PCO. However, we have put forward a proposal for a compatible future use of the building

We believe the building could be a monument to Jack Patten, William Ferguson, Pearl Gibbs, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Margaret Tucker, William Cooper and the many other activists who fought for Aboriginal civil rights.

The building provides a physical and atmospheric link to the 1930s era. It evokes sensations of the 1938 event which could not be re-created in a modern setting.

We could compare this building to the site of the First Government House (FGH). When the stones of the first Governor's place of residence were excavated, a $100 million dollar development project was halted and the site was protected by a PCO. It was chosen as an ideal location for the Museum of Sydney.

We believe the building would be an ideal locale for an Aboriginal History Centre. This centre could include:

  • A Museum to Aboriginal Heroes
  • A Resource and Information Centre
  • A Base for a Consultancy Service
  • A Research Facility
  • A Base for Aboriginal Heritage Tours
  • A Theatre for films, plays, public lectures & other events

We are seeking support from local, state and federal governments for this proposed centre. The establishment of such a Centre would respond to Recommendation 56 of the Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which links pride in Aboriginal identity with respect and promotion of Aboriginal history and heritage.

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