This day, a Day of Mourning
On 26 January 1938 the Day of Mourning was held in the centre of Sydney, in the Australian Hall at the Cyprus Hellene Club. It was attended by some of the most prominent Aboriginal leaders of the day including members of the Aboriginal Advancement League and the Aboriginal Progressive Association. The choice of holding the Day of Mourning on Australia Day, the national holiday celebrating the arrival of the first fleet and the birth of Australia as a nation, highlighted the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the Australian nation.
"The 26th January 1938, is not a day of rejoicing for Australia's Aborigines; it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years' so-called "progress" in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country. We, representing the Aborigines, now as you, the reader of this appeal, to pause in the midst of your sesqui-centenary rejoicings and ask yourself honestly whether your "conscience" is clear in regard to the treatment of the Australian blacks by the Australian whites during the period of 150 years' history which you celebrate?' (Patten et al 1938)
An ongoing fight for equal rights
Since European settlement, Indigenous people have been treated differently to the general Australian population; denied basic equality with 'whites' and rarely given full protection before the law. Indigenous people have long resisted and protested against European settlement of their country.
Early protests started in the 1840s and continued through to the late 1920s. These were initiated by residents of missions and reserves as a result of local issues and took the form of letters, petitions and appeals. In the late 1920s a new dynamic began with the creation of regional and state based Aboriginal controlled organisations such as the Aboriginal Progressive Association in New South Wales and the Aboriginal Advancement League in Victoria. Many members of these organisations shared common life experiences; they grew up on missions or reserves controlled by protection boards but were either expelled on disciplinary grounds or left to find work. The experience of living under the control of a protection board on a mission or reserve, and the discrimination they encountered when they moved away from these places, united the members of these early Aboriginal organisations in their concerns for the lack of civil rights for Aboriginal people, the growth in the Aboriginal Protection Board's powers and the condition of people remaining in missions and reserves.
The Day of Mourning
In November 1937 members of the Aboriginal Advancement League and Aboriginal Progressive Association met in Melbourne and agreed to hold a protest conference in Sydney to coincide with Australia Day celebrations in 1938. They called this day the Day of Mourning and promoted it to the Aboriginal people through radio interviews and other media and by visiting some of the Aboriginal reserves. They also published a pamphlet to promote the purpose of the protest to non-Indigenous people, though only Aborigines would be permitted to attend.
Originally the organisers wanted to hold the Day of Mourning protest in Sydney's Town Hall, but were denied this request. Instead they were granted permission to rent the Australian Hall in the Cyprus Hellene Club. However this was only granted on the condition that the delegates watched the Australia Day parade from the Town Hall steps then marched behind the parade to Australian Hall.
The Day of Mourning was held in a period when there were restrictions on Aboriginal people's rights of movement and assembly and so delegates from reserves risked imprisonment, expulsion from their homes and loss of their jobs for participating in the event. Even so, over 100 people attended the Day of Mourning from throughout New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Telegrams of support for the protest also came from across Australia, which the organisers believed gave the gathering the status and strength of a national action.
The protest was a statement to the Government and the people of Australia on this day of celebration of European settlement, but is also had a higher purpose. The Day of Mourning identified a significant collection of policy issues impacting on Indigenous people and proposed recommendations for addressing these issues through government action. While there has been progress, many of the political statements from the Day of Mourning are still relevant to Indigenous people today.
Outstanding heritage value to our nation
The Cyprus Hellene Club - Australian Hall has outstanding cultural heritage values for its association with the Aboriginal Day of Mourning, its connection with a number of Aboriginal leaders of the time and for the strong association Indigenous people continue to have with the place.
Indigenous peoples' strong association with the site and the events that took place there reflect the outstanding role it has played in Australia's Indigenous political and social history. The site of the Day of Mourning represents the Indigenous peoples' struggle for the recognition of their civil rights, regarded as one of the most important moments in the history of Indigenous resistance in the early 20th century.
Depictions of the participants of the Day of Mourning and the resolution at Reconciliation Place in Canberra's Parliamentary Zone is an example of how Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike continue to recognise and remember this historic day and its significance in the course of Australia's cultural history.
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