Pearl Mary (Gambanyi) Gibbs (1901-1983) was one of the major political activists supporting Aboriginal rights in Australia from the 1920s all the way to the 1970s. The highlights of her work include organizing the key -- pickers strike in 1933, being involved in organizing the Day of Mourning in 1938, speaking for the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, calling for Aboriginal representation on the New South Wales board, being the organizing secretary for the new Melbourne-based Council for Aboriginal Rights, establishing the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship in 1956, being the first and only female member of the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board in 1954, and establishing the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship in 1956 (Gilbert, 1983; Goodall, 1983; Goodall, 1988; Horner, 1983). This list of accomplishments is just a scratch on the surface of the life of this amazing political activist and leader. Her activism for the rights of Indigenous peoples was only curtailed by her death in 1983.
Pearl Gibbs was born in Pearl Mary Brown 1901 at La Perouse, Sydney, Australia. She was the younger of two daughters to an Aboriginal mother, Mary Margaret Brown, and a white father named David Barry. David Barry was separated from the family and Gibbs' mother fended for herself (Gilbert, 2005). In 1910 Gibbs' mother married Richard Murray, and aboriginal from Brewarrina. After Pearl's birth, her mother had returned to Yass, where Pearl and her sister, Olga, attended the Mount Carmel School run by the sisters of Mercy. Aboriginal children had been banned from attending public schools in Yass since 1897 (Horner, 1983). Although her skin was fair, Gibbs began to experience racial discrimination early and identified herself as Aboriginal due to her early experiences with the educational system.
By 1910 Gibbs' family settled close to Bourke. Pearl's mother and stepfather worked on a sheep station near Byrock. Later Pearl and Olga were both maids there. In 1917 the sisters moved to Sydney and took positions as domestic servants, positions which may have been arranged by their parents' employers. Although Gibbs was able to secure steady employment in the wealthy area of Potts Point she also made the acquaintance of the Aboriginal girls who had been removed from their homes against their will and the will of their families and were indentured ("apprenticed" was the formal term for this) by the Aborigines Protection Board as domestics (Celermajer, 2005). Pearl was deeply moved by their working conditions and the stories that these young ladies told of being taken from their homes. Gibbs decided to represent them as an advocate with the board, an early sign of her forthcoming political activism (Gilbert, 2005). Gibbs' political education continued to grow as she met more young women and girls who had been apprenticed as domestics by the Aborigines Protection Board. Her negotiating skills and speaking skills also improved as she assisted many of these young women in their interactions with the board in the 1920s. She also developed a taste for political activism as a result of these interactions (Gilbert, 1983).
In 1923 Pearl was married to an English -- born naval steward, Robert James Gibbs. They were eventually to have three children: two sons and one daughter. One of Gibbs' sons, Charles Reginald Gibbs served in the Royal Australian Navy (Gilbert, 2005). In the late 1920s the marriage fell apart and Gibbs moved to an unemployment camp at Happy Valley to be with her mother and stepfather. This experience led to her becoming more aware of the activities of the protection board as the police made efforts to reduce any contact between the unemployed workers and the nearby reserve community. Gibbs took a job with her parents picking peas in order to be self-sufficient and remove herself from the control of the board. This experience led to her becoming acquainted with the aboriginal people from the Wallaga Lake area (Gilbert, 2005). She became quite disgusted with the treatment of the people on the reserve and with the Aborigine Protection Board policies. Gibbs organized protests against many of the management decisions and this led to her eventually organizing protests by the pea -- pickers for better conditions, something unheard of at the time. These experiences also led to contacts in the New South Wales Harlem such as Jack Beale (Gilbert, 2005).
In 1936 the board's powers were increased to allow detained and confinement of anyone with aborigine heritage, meaning that Gibbs was one of the people now under their scrutiny. In 1937 Pearl began organizing the soon-to-be Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) with Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten (Attwood, & Magowan, 2001). She traveled to Sydney and began work on the APA. Her duties included collecting information at Brewarrina to assess the association to make public the terrible conditions on the reserves and obtain a formal inquiry concerning the activities of the protection board. Pearl was placed as the secretary of the APA and began use her position to make inspiring public speeches regarding the rights of women and children of Indigenous descent and to bring the public light the poor conditions that women, mothers, and children were exposed to on the reserves (Gilbert, 2005). Ferguson and Patten (the then APA president) believed that Gibbs was the best prepared APA member to connect with the women of Australia on matters regarding Aboriginal females, so Gibbs spent several years addressing groups where women comprised the majority of the membership.
Due to her early training as a domestic and her steadfast personality Gibbs was very good at organizing conferences, committee meetings, and other events. She was instrumental in helping to plan the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day 1938. Following the Day of Mourning Gibbs was able to speak about her experiences as part of a delegation from the conference that met with then Prime Minister Lyons, who was so impressed with Gibbs' assertion that she was prouder of her Aboriginal heritage than her white heritage that Lyons would quote it to Jack Horner nearly 30 years later (Goodall, 1983).
Gibbs renewed her contact with Aboriginal apprenticed females and worked closely with white middle-class activist Joan Kingsley-Strack in order to make public the slave labor and disgusting sexual exploitation faced by these girls who worked as domestic slaves separated from their families and from their homes (for some description of this abuse see Celermajer, 2005). Gibbs became one of the very few women who formally spoke in public political forums such as the Domain (Gilbert, 2005). It was these types of activities that established Gibbs as a liaison between Aboriginals' social movements and the social movements of white females in Australia. Gibbs served on the management committee of the Union of Australian Women and at the same time she was a committee member for The Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, which attracted many white leftists who sympathized with the committee's goals. Famous activists such as Faith Bandler, Michael Sawtell, and Jesse Street became associated with Gibbs (Attwood, 2003). Gibbs also developed an unusual savvy regarding the media and was very instrumental in keeping the media informed of her activities. Gibbs possessed the uncanny ability to be very outspoken and seemingly abrasive in her pursuits and yet at the same time there was a certain charm about her that contributed to her ability to be persuasive. In 1941 Gibbs addressed large audiences through the radio and had writings published in local newspapers and in newspapers in larger cities such as Sydney (Gilbert, 2005).
In 1950 Gibbs was appointed secretary of the Dubbo branch of the Australian Aborigines' League. Following the establishment of a State branch of the Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1952 Gibbs became hits organizing secretary. The planning of the Day of Mourning protest was instrumental in establishing Gibbs' political contacts and drawing attention to her as a potential leader of the movement for the rights for Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, according to Gilbert (2005) perhaps Pearl's greatest impact occurred as a result of her work behind the limelight that brought people together to establish campaigns and to brainstorm regarding how to address important social issues. Gibbs was also known for her loyalty to the Aboriginal cause and worked closely and befriended many activists in the important years of the movements.
Following the Second World War Gibbs established herself with her widowed mother in Dubbo. She actively supported the attempts by the Aboriginal peoples in the region to be treated humanely and receive fair and equal treatment under the Aborigines Welfare Board. Gibbs had a natural ability to embrace the challenges of instituting social reforms and to understand the questions of the day. She was known as being quite forthright and honest but at the same time understanding how to temper her enthusiasm depending on the demographics of the group she was negotiating with or the audience she was speaking to (Horner, 1983).
In the 1950s the Aborigines Welfare Board's policies became focused on moving towards aggressive assimilation of the Indigenous peoples. Gibbs saw the assimilation issue as a scam, if…