Bill Ferguson dreamed of a time when Indigenous Australians could live freely without prejudice and bigotry. Since 1937 when he campaigned for full citizenship rights to be granted to the Aboriginal population to a packed Masonic Hall in Dubbo, plus more. Words John Ryan
Bill Ferguson isn’t well known, but he should be.
The fight for Indigenous rights in Australia really began on the day Captain James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770, but it wasn’t until 1938 that a popular movement could be said to have “arrived”.
On Australia Day of that year, while the attention focused on the 150th anniversary of Governor Phillip’s landing, a small, well-dressed group of Aboriginal people from widespread communities gathered quietly in protest outside Australia House in Elizabeth St to declare a Day of Mourning.
It was born from the despair they felt after years of lobbying to draw attention to the multiple injustices done to the indigenous people.
According to the Dictionary of Sydney, “It was the first national civil rights gathering and represents the most clearly identifiable beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal political movement”.
A driving force in the movement was Dubbo-based activist Bill Ferguson, born on July 24, 1882 at Waddai, Darlington Point, New South Wales, the second of seven children of William Ferguson, shearer and boundary rider from Scotland, and his wife Emily, née Ford, formerly an Aboriginal housemaid.
Bill became a shearer and unionist, once described by the minister of the Dubbo Presbyterian Church where he was an elder as “one of those intelligent but uneducated people with a real thirst for knowledge”.
While not denying his Scots heritage Bill chose to identify with the Aboriginals in their desperate need.
During thirty years of travelling and working in sheds across the west he formed a team who gathered a vast amount of evidence about poor schooling, rampant tuberculosis, low wages, alcohol addiction, trachoma, high infant mortality, physical abuse and degraded living conditions among the Aboriginal people.
On June 27, 1937, in a packed Masonic Hall in Dubbo, he launched the Aboriginals Progressive Association (APA) calling for “The abolition of the Aborigines Protection Board, full citizenship rights and direct representation in parliament”.
The A.P.A. resolutions, mostly Ferguson's work, were ahead of their time.
Fully twenty years before the Reverend Martin Luther King in the United States, Bill Ferguson articulated a dream of freedom for his people.
Ferguson had been aware since the early 1920s of the control imposed on the Aboriginal people by the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board, which expected Aborigines of mixed descent to “absorb” into society, and others to die out.
Young men expelled from reserves by managers became bush-workers.
Inspectors took girls away for training as domestic servants; “pocket-money” was held in trust.
In 1939, when parliament amended the Aborigines Protection Act (1909) to increase the powers of the board, Ferguson began organising the “dark people” as he called them.
Ferguson habitually checked his facts with reserve residents before attacking official policies on land, housing and control, and in the process he inspired young Aborigines to take up politics.
When the Protection Board dismissed the manager of the government run mission at Brewarrina, Ferguson, with the assistance of Mark Davidson, Member for Cobar, provoked a Select Committee of Inquiry which uncovered a tragic story of mismanagement and consistent abuse.
When official interest at the Inquiry waned as the truth about the treatment of the Aboriginal people became evident, Ferguson and Davidson stacked the public gallery with a remarkable cross section of supporters – leading churchmen, feminists and the Housewives’ Association along with members of the Aboriginal Progressive Association.
A host of specially invited reporters heard Ferguson declare forcefully that, “We must educate the minds of the white people, otherwise the thrusting back of my people which began 150 years ago will continue, until they are swept off the face of the earth!”
It was a landmark moment in civil rights history in Australia.
As vice-president of the NSW branch of the Australian Aborigines League, Ferguson drafted a list of administrative reforms that were presented to Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s unresponsive Minister for the Interior in February 1949.
Furious at being ignored by both political parties, Ferguson resigned from the Labor Party and stood as an Independent for Dubbo in the December elections.
Inspired by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, he called for civil rights for all people.
His last speech, delivered a few weeks before he died was a ringing call for justice:
“To all you people of Aboriginal blood, I say…I am fighting for your freedom.
“Aboriginals still live under laws meant only to control criminals and lunatics: they are not allowed ordinary human rights…I can promise you nothing but the will to work.”
Bill Ferguson collapsed as he left the platform, and died of hypertensive heart disease in Dubbo Base Hospital on January 4, 1950.
While he had gained a great deal for his people, he finished disillusioned, feeling he had failed after polling only 388 votes.
He remained a strong Christian to the end of his life, but found that apart from a few notable individuals, the churches were not yet sufficiently convicted to speak out on behalf of the Aboriginal people.
His loyal wife Margaret, of Scots - Aboriginal descent and like her husband, a woman of strong faith, remained with their 10 children, a number of whom became active in serving the Aboriginal people in the Western region.
Another 17 years passed before Bill Ferguson’s dream was realised when on the May 27, 1967, the highest YES vote ever recorded in a Federal referendum (90.77 per cent) saw section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution changed to shift Aboriginal people from unrecognised existence to be included as citizens of their native country.
Now a local group has a proposal to publicly recognise Ferguson and his outstanding advocacy for Aboriginal people.
They’re hoping to erect a statue of Bill Ferguson in the public square near the Masonic Hall - the site where the national civil rights movement was launched, and proponents believe it will add a noble element to the cityscape of Dubbo.
There are numerous rationales behind this project:
It is timely – it accords with the current climate in Australia to include Aboriginal people and history in public cultural events. e.g. Adam Goodes as 2015 Australian of the Year and the Australia Day celebrations of 2016.
It offers proper recognition to a man who played a significant role in campaigning for justice and civil rights in Australia. He was a man ahead of his time - twenty years before Martin Luther King in America and thirty years before Australia recognized the Aboriginal people as full citizens.
It speaks of healing and reconciliation. The Ferguson family chose to live in Dubbo because of the ‘friendly tolerance’ they found in the town in the 1930’s. The story of a man with a Scots father who chose to identify with the struggles of his Aboriginal mother’s people is an important part of the town’s ethos worth building on for the future.
It is a powerful story of courage, faith, determination and character that belongs to all of Australia. It should be a highly inspirational element in Dubbo’s public persona and challenge to future generations. It would have a multiplier effect in terms of social capital.
It fits with the call from civic leaders for economic development, visitor attraction and meaningful public events. Owning a nationally significant figure of Bill Ferguson’s calibre would provoke a number of substantial initiatives that will raise Dubbo’s profile.
Many initiatives and partnerships have already been explored in a bid to make the project happen, as well as ensuring that its national significance is recognised.
“Riverbank” Frank Doolan has been canvassing the Aboriginal community to gain support. Proper public recognition of an Aboriginal leader would have a restorative and constructive effect. The Ferguson descendants are scattered through the Western region.
NITV and SBS have indicated they will give this issue national coverage and other media organisations such as the ABC have also expressed interest. Local media outlets are also keen to highlight the story to Dubbo and the broader region.
Charles Sturt university (CSU) Dubbo will include the Bill Ferguson story into the Childhood Memories series of books with the view to incorporating it into the undergraduate material available to students.
Western Plains Cultural Centre has expressed interest in developing the Bill Ferguson story. The Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre is developing a permanent exhibition covering Ferguson’s work in the Western region.
Project proponents are looking at Crowdfunding as a supplement to public funding. This would give public ownership to the statue. Local sculptor Brett Garling would be an obvious candidate for the task. Brett has created some of the country’s most amazing sculptures and is keen to be involved.
An annual Bill Ferguson prize could be instituted, going beyond the black and white Australia debate to recognize anyone working to build positive cross cultural relationships. The keynotes could be hope and unity.
A public speaking event with a recognized speaker linked to other civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela could gain profile nationally. The creative community could develop music, literature, drama, film and art to flesh out the story further.
William Cooper and William Ferguson were both men of Christian faith. Cooper launched a national Aboriginal Sunday in the churches in 1941 and called for a Day of Hope to follow the Day of Mourning. The church communities could revisit this initiative perhaps around the 27th of June each year. It might well gain national acceptance.
The Bill Ferguson story could be built into school curriculums as a positive role model of leadership.
Service clubs look for worthwhile community initiatives to get behind. This would readily fit their aspirations.
This story would be an attractive addition to the Dubbo tourist agenda. e.g. the statue, story in the Cultural Centre and visits to his gravesite.
Ferguson’s initiatives have morphed into NAIDOC Week. His story would make a strong basis for a community event in the town square.
Pearl Gibbs, the first Aboriginal spokeswoman who was part of Ferguson’s team is also buried in Dubbo. This could be another powerful strand to be developed in future.
All the above could combine to bring visitors and enhance the public identity of the town as a city developing positive initiatives.
Bill Ferguson’s story is one that must be told to the nation, yet he remains unacknowledged in any public space.
2017 will be the 80th anniversary of the significant moment when the national civil rights movement was launched in Dubbo on June 27th 1937.
It will also be the 50th anniversary of the landmark vote that gave recognition to the Aboriginal people on May 27th 1967.
The above initiatives could be orchestrated over the next 12 months in a build up to a mid-2017 event.
Council could appoint a steering committee, provide seed funding and office support.
We commend this to the council as a timely initiative with the potential to lift the national profile of Dubbo.
Quest to honour Ferguson’s life
A group of locals is working on a public memorial for this great man, the information on the project has been compiled by local historian and Cornerstone Community co-founder Dr Paul Roe, who along with members of the local Aboriginal community is working hard to create a lasting public memorial to honour Ferguson’s life.
Dr Roe first came across the story in Bourke 20 years ago after talking with John Ferguson, Bill’s son, here’s what’s driving his passion to ensure everyone knows this amazing slice of local history..
“I am a historian with an interest in resurfacing great stories of men and women of faith whose vision has shaped modern Australia.
I have been gripped by this story of a shearer with minimal education and few resources pioneering the cause of justice for the ‘dark people’ of Australia as he called them.
I admire Bill Ferguson’s character and determination.
Almost single-handedly he built an extensive network of people across the west who reported to him the abuses and neglect suffered by many indigenous people scattered through bush towns.
He wielded this information skillfully on public platforms, in the press and at the highest levels of government.
I see him standing astride the black–white divide in mid-20th century Australia pleading powerfully for justice.
He argued strongly, but maintained great dignity.
He believed that the Bible taught all men were God’s children and his appeal was simply that his people be recognized as citizens in their own country.
I believe his story could promote the themes of Hope, Justice and Unity at a critical time in our nation’s history.
I am moved by the pathos of a 68 year old man collapsing at his home in Wingewarra St following his final campaign speech standing as an independent for Federal Parliament in 1950 and dying disappointed a few days later after learning he only polled 388 votes.
But seventeen years later, 90 percent of Australia resoundingly endorsed his cause in the 1967 referendum.
It’s sad that his story has been neglected for so long in his home-town.
It’s the story of a hero whose time has come”.
In 1995 I spent two months driving around Canada and the USA with some friends.
I’d done a 10,000 mile (16,000km) road trip 10 years before with other mates and had missed South Dakota the first time around after being outvoted on my detour plans.
Mt Rushmore in South Dakota is famous around the world because the heads of four US presidents have been carved into the side of a mountain in the Black Hills.
But far more inspiring for me was a mountain sculpture in progress less than half an hour away.
When the presidents’ heads were being planned local Indian tribes asked for one of their leaders to be placed into the mix, but that request was denied.
Six elderly chiefs, survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn where General George Custer’s command was wiped out, approached Connecticut sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (who had assisted Gutzon Borglum with the Mt Rushmore carving) and asked him to sculpt a bust of Chief Crazy Horse into a sacred mountain in the Black Hills.
Lokota Chief Henry Standing Bear put it this way: “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too.”
Ziolkowski moved to the mountain in 1947 and began work on a 172 metre high by 195 metre long sculpture, planned to be the largest in the world.
The head alone would be larger in cubic area than all four presidents heads at Mt Rushmore.
It’s planned to be Crazy Horse sitting on his horse, with the horse’s head alone 22 stories tall.
Ziolkowski has since died and the work is being carried on by his wife, 10 children and numerous grandkids.
What inspired me was the dream of the project, with the Ziolkowski family not sure if it will be completed by the end of this century – but who cares, time isn’t important but getting the sculpture right is paramount.
The importance of this undertaking is all about having a dream bigger than day to day concerns, and honoring those who stood up for what they believed in.
So when I heard a local group was trying to raise funds to commission a sculpture of Bill Ferguson, a champion of Aboriginal rights, to be placed in a public place in Dubbo, I was immediately hooked.
He truly was a man before his time, and one who put service to his people before self.
Rod Towney is one local who’s supporting the project, Rod is well known as a former long-serving Dubbo City Councillor and has spent years involved with issues affecting local Aboriginal communities, the broader Wiradjuri region, and he was televised to the world as he made a speech in the opening ceremony at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
“William Ferguson’s family have enlisted me to assist in raising funds to build a life size statue of the late Mr. William Ferguson,” Mr Towney said.
“We need to honour our own and given that he paved the way for our peoples, lived and died in Dubbo we are trying to raise the required funds - $65,000 is needed and we are seeking assistance.
“The local sculptor will need at least six months to complete the statue and we are anxious that he’s given the ok to begin the work,” he said.
Bill Ferguson’s grandson Willie lives in Lightning Ridge and is pushing hard to ensure his grandfather’s legacy lives on.
“I was only a kid when he was alive but I’m trying to follow in his footsteps,” Willie said.
“I’m proud of my grandfather’s achievements, all that he did, he was given no favours and he worked for grassroots Aboriginal people.
“When he started his union off in the Riverina he was only 14 years-old and when he got up and spoke people just stopped and listened to him.”
Willie is particularly proud of Bill’s concept for Naidoc week, which he set down for July so it was a far away as possible from Australia Day on January 26.
Uncle Ray Peckham and Riverbank Frank are also involved in the project, working to get community support to fund the sculpture.