by Heather Goodall
Pearl Mary (Gambanyi) Gibbs (1901-1983), Aboriginal leader, was born in 1901 at La Perouse, Sydney, younger daughter of Mary Margaret Brown, who was born in Brewarrina to Maria, an Aboriginal woman of the Ngemba or Muruwari language, and a white station worker, George Brown. Pearl’s father, David Barry, was estranged from the family. After Pearl’s birth, her mother returned to her employment in Yass, where Pearl and her sister, Olga, later attended Mount Carmel School. Although Pearl’s skin was fair, racial discrimination in her schooling caused her to identify strongly as Aboriginal.
By 1910 the family had settled near Bourke, where Margaret married an Aboriginal widower, Richard Murray. They worked on a sheep station near Byrock; Olga and later Pearl were maids. In 1917 the sisters left for Sydney to take jobs as domestic servants. Pearl found steady employment in the Potts Point area, but she met Aboriginal girls who had been removed from their country homes unwillingly and had been `apprenticed’ or indentured by the Aborigines Protection Board as domestic servants. Disturbed by their position, she tried to help them by acting as advocate with the board.
Pearl married Robert James Gibbs, an English-born naval steward, on 14 April 1923 at the registrar’s office, Paddington, Sydney; they had two sons and a daughter. One son, Charles Reginald, served (1937-50) in the Royal Australian Navy. When the marriage broke down late in the 1920s, she lived in an unemployment camp at Happy Valley near La Perouse. She became more acutely aware of the protection board, as police tried to reduce contact between the unemployed workers and the nearby reserve community. With her mother and stepfather she picked peas at Nowra to eke out a living away from the board’s control. She encouraged residents at the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal reserve to defy the board manager’s control over their income, and helped pea pickers to seek better conditions.
New legislation in 1936 widened the board’s powers to allow the confinement of anyone `apparently having an admixture of aboriginal blood’ at one of its managed stations; this change meant that Pearl was now covered by the legislation. In 1937 she travelled to Sydney and began work for the fledgling Aborigines Progressive Association with Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten. She collected information at Brewarrina that assisted the association to publicise the deteriorating conditions on overcrowded reserves, and to obtain an inquiry into the protection board; a select committee sat during 1937 and 1938.
As secretary (1938-39) of the Aborigines Progressive Association, Pearl focused her public speaking on the issues of women’s and children’s rights, exposing the appalling nutritional and health conditions mothers and children faced on government-managed reserves. She renewed her contact with Aboriginal `apprenticed’ girls, and worked with the middle-class white activist Joan Kingsley-Strack to publicise the labour and sexual exploitation these girls faced as isolated domestic servants far from home. Pearl was one of the few women, white or black, who spoke in public political forums such as the Domain. She became a link between the white women’s and Aboriginals’ movements, serving, for example, on the management committee of the Union of Australian Women. The Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, of which she was a member, drew many white sympathisers, from militant left-wing unionists to more diversely motivated people such as Michael Sawtell, into the campaign. Pearl had a strong association with the activists Jessie Street and Faith Bandler.
Conscious of the importance of media coverage, Pearl ensured that journalists were kept informed. Although often outspoken and abrasive, she could also be charming and persuasive. She reached a wide audience in Sydney and Wollongong when she spoke about women’s and general Aboriginal issues on radio station 2GB in 1941. Her writing appeared in the women’s, local and Sydney press.
A good organiser, Gibbs helped to plan the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day 1938. She became secretary of the Dubbo branch of the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1950. After a State branch of the Council for Aboriginal Rights was established in 1952, Pearl became organising secretary. However, her greatest impact was in her behind-thescenes role of bringing people together to undertake new campaigns. She was a loyal friend to many Aboriginal activists over the years, from Ferguson and Bert Groves in the 1950s to Kevin Gilbert in the 1970s.
After World War II Gibbs had settled in Dubbo with her widowed mother, actively supporting attempts by Aboriginal people in the region to get better conditions under the Aborigines Welfare Board. Her understanding of the broad questions of social reform and her determination, integrity and forthright nature were admired. A railway worker, Jack Booth, commented: `She could adapt herself to any audience—be fiery or softspoken—she wouldn’t pull her punches’.
As the Aborigines Welfare Board’s policies hardened into aggressive assimilation, in 1954 Gibbs was elected to the seat on the board that was assigned to mixed-race Aborigines. She found that there was no real power for an Aboriginal member of the board; she could not inspect reserves unless on an official tour. As both an Aborigine and a woman, she believed she was excluded from key decision-making, some of which took place over drinks in hotel bars.
In 1956 Gibbs drew together significant people and sparked the formation of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which was an energetic and stimulating advocate for Aboriginal rights and a fertile meeting place for black and white activists until the late 1960s. Vice-president in its first year, Pearl found it a more effective and satisfying forum than the welfare board. She campaigned against the continuing limits to Aboriginal civil rights, including restrictions on access to alcohol. In 1957 she worked for the petition launched by the AAF to change the Australian Constitution.
Later in 1957 Gibbs resigned from the welfare board and her official role in the fellowship, although she continued to be an active member of the latter and was elected a life member in 1962. She established a hostel for Aboriginal people who came to Dubbo for medical treatment, convincing the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia to fund the hostel—a small weatherboard cottage—and the Aborigines Welfare Board to provide her modest allowance as warden. On 28 April 1983 she died at Dubbo and was buried in the new Catholic cemetery.