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A contested celebration

1938: First Aboriginal Day of Mourning

State Library of NSW a429002
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Today, Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January each year. Protests are also still held on that date.

(i) Do you think 26 January is an appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day?

(ii) Conduct a survey to find out what other people who live in your area think about this question. This could include asking your local council and local Aboriginal groups or people.

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Australian Hall in central Sydney</p>
Photo: Collywolly

In a snapshot

On 26 January 1938 many Australians were celebrating the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of the British colonisation of Australia. A group of Aboriginal people decided to respond by holding an Aboriginal Day of Mourning to protest the violence, dispossession and discrimination that Aboriginal people had experienced since 1788. It was the first national gathering of Indigenous people protesting against their treatment. It became an annual event for Aboriginal people and their supporters, before evolving later into NAIDOC week.

Australian Hall in central Sydney

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What anniversary took place in January 1938?

2. What happened in Australian Hall at the same time as Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations?

3. Why did Prime Minister Joseph Lyons meet with the organisers of the Day of Mourning?

What events were planned for the sesquicentenary?

In 1938 Australians celebrated 150 years since Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in New South Wales. The main sesquicentenary celebrations took place in Sydney on 26 January. The day started with a re-enactment of Captain Arthur Phillip’s landing at Sydney Cove. Next, 120 motorised floats, celebrating different aspects of life in Australia, paraded through the streets of Sydney.

The event organisers wanted Aboriginal people to take part in the re-enactment, but Aboriginal people living in Sydney refused. Instead, the organisers brought in Aboriginal men from Menindee in western New South Wales. The men were told to run up the beach away from the British, even though this was not what really happened when the British landed in 1788.

<p>Leaflet issued by Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations Council</p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>Leaflet issued by Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations Council</p>

Why did the Day of Mourning take place?

In contrast to these celebrations a group of Aboriginal people decided to protest. They met at the Australian Hall in Sydney and declared 26 January a Day of Mourning.

They mourned the loss of their country, their freedom and the deaths of Aboriginal people since Europeans began to colonise Australia in 1788. They also argued that Aboriginal people should be given Australian citizenship, equal political rights and better access to education.

The protest was organised by Jack Patten, William Ferguson and William Cooper, who had set up Aboriginal lobby groups in New South Wales and Victoria. The Day of Mourning was the first time that Aboriginal activist groups from different states had worked together to organise an event.

Research task

 

At first, the Aboriginal group from Menindee who replaced the Sydney Aboriginal people also refused to take part in the 1788 re-enactment, but they eventually agreed. Do some research to find out why they reluctantly took part.

‘We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community.’

Jack Patten, Day of Mourning organiser, 1938

Why was the Day of Mourning significant?

Aboriginal people had been lobbying for more rights and better living conditions for years, but there had been very little political change. The Day of Mourning was a chance to draw attention to the injustices done to Aboriginal people since European colonisation.

After the protest Prime Minister Joseph Lyons and his wife, Enid Lyons, met with the organisers of the protest. They spent two hours together, but the meeting did not bring about any practical political changes.

The Day of Mourning became an annual event for Aboriginal people and their supporters. Eventually, it was decided that the day should also celebrate Aboriginal culture, so it was moved to July and eventually became NAIDOC week.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

Jack Patten, William Ferguson and William Cooper were the main organisers of the Day of Mourning. All three men had set up Aboriginal organisations in their home states. Can you find out which group each activist set up?

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What anniversary took place in January 1938?

2. What happened in Australian Hall at the same time as Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations?

3. Why did Prime Minister Joseph Lyons meet with the organisers of the Day of Mourning?