1924 to 1999
Alick Jackomos, of Greek heritage, was married to Merle Morgan from Cummeragunja and was very much a part of the Melbourne-based Koorie community.
From his early life growing up in Collingwood, as a soldier in the AIF during the Second World War, and as a member of the Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe, Alick Jackomos became friendly with many Aboriginal people all over the country.
He worked closely with Pastor Doug Nicholls and was a welfare officer at the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Reserve in Victoria.
In 1964 Jackomos became the Victorian state secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), and was responsible for bringing to the Federal Conference the concerns of Victorian Aboriginal people.
He held this position until 1967. Alick Jackomos was instrumental in organising the first Victoria-wide meetings of Koorie people in the mid 1960s, and in encouraging and supporting Aboriginal attendance at the annual conferences. With his friend Doug Nicholls, he gathered petitions and donations supporting the 1967 Referendum.
When he was interviewed in 1996 Alick Jackomos spoke about the Australian Aborigines' League, which preceded FCAATSI.
I think we should mention the Australian Aboriginal League. It was founded in the '30s by William Cooper and Pastor Doug Nicholls and Auntie Marj Tucker and others. And — oh! Thomas James, the Indian chap, and Mr Burdeu and Ebenezer Lovett from Condah. But in 1942 — around '42 — four people died. And that was Thomas James, the Indian, Mr Burdeu, the white secretary, William Cooper and Ebenezer Lovett. And I think the Australian Aboriginal League more or less — it went into hibernation you might say. And the War was on.
But when I came back after the War the younger generation had picked it up — Eric Onus, Harry Booth, Doug Nicholls, Stewart Murray, meself, Bill Onus. And a little later Bruce McGuinness when he came down with his mum from Cowra. And the Australian Aboriginal League, it wasn't big like the Advancement League but it was more in changing legislation. The same as the other organisation that was here in Victoria, the Aboriginal Rights Council [the Council for Aboriginal Rights], which Bill Onus was the president and Pauline Pickford was the secretary. And I think Shirley Andrews and Alistair Campbell were involved with that. Anyhow, the Australian Aboriginal League ran as a separate organisation to the Aborigines Advancement League. And in 1963 again, Bruce — in fact I've got the minutes here somewhere. Just bear with me one minute.
He explained how the Australian Aborigines League became integrated with the Aborigines' Advancment League.
'Nominations were called for president. Bruce McGuinness nominated Alick Jackomos. Seconded by Harry Williams.' So here's a non-Aboriginal for the first time being president of the Australian Aborigines League. Within a couple of years the Australian Aborigines League then became the Aboriginal branch of the Advancement League, because the Australian Aboriginal League, although we were involved in changing legislation and that, was a much smaller organisation than the Advancement League. We were running a lot of social events. Bill Onus had his boomerang [show] packed out at Belgrave and run shows there. Eric Onus had his tribal council with Bruce McGuinness and Harry Williams and those. And then running some of the socials and the dances and this type of thing — and the Aboriginal Ball. So by about '65–'66 we became a branch of the Aborigines Advancement League.
Alick described the tensions which arose when Aboriginal people were seeking to control their own affairs.
Well, I was very fortunate to attend the Aboriginal sessions — because I was a non-Aboriginal. But, I'd been involved for some thirty years prior to that in Aboriginal affairs, right from the Australian Aboriginal League days with William Cooper and Arthur Burdeu and Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus down at the Yarra bank and their meetings in Fitzroy. I'm talkin' about the late 1930s. So I grew up in an Aboriginal environment. And then when I married Merle Morgan from Cummeragunja I got deeper into it! So, and my involvement here with the Advancement League for so long that I think people didn't realise that I wasn't an Aboriginal. You know — they didn't realise that I was of Greek descent. You know in fact even today a lot of 'em are surprised when I tell them, 'No I'm not Aboriginal. Merle is'.
So I had the pleasure to go to those Aboriginal sessions. But, I did mention before — there was one disappointment. That, on a couple of instances, they barred non-Aboriginals from the Aboriginal session. Which is right — it's an Aboriginal — but I'm referring to the white spouses or the white wives of Aboriginal people. And on one occasion two prominent Aboriginal ladies they'd worked many years in Aboriginal affairs had married white, had children there, [their husbands] came along to the meeting. And someone got up at the Aboriginal session and said, 'Look there's white people here. Could they leave!' And when those two people got up to leave I got up also. But I also remember Kath Walker sayin', 'No Alick. You stay here!' Whether she realised I was Greek or thought I was Aboriginal. 'No, no,' she says, 'you stay here'.
But soon as those two people walked out — and I will mention their names. One was Bill Monks married to Rosie Kunoth — who acted in Jedda. She came down for a while after, from the Northern Territory, and was in one of the convents and worked in the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. So there was Rosie and her hubby, Bill. And then there was another girl from Queensland — came from Mapoon. And her name was Jean Jans. I forget her — Jean Ling actually was her maiden name and she married a John Jans. So Jean and John were on this conference. And these people had worked very hard in Aboriginal affairs here in Melbourne as well, which the people at Canberra would not have been aware of.
So when they walked out I got up and I says, 'Look these people are married to Aboriginal girls. They're ostracised by the white community. They've got Aboriginal children. Why should they be separated? Why should we ask them out? You know they're the parents of our future leaders.' And some of them got up and said, 'No, they should stop'. Unanimously, everybody said they should stay. I ran out to tell them but I think they were in the car park. They were just getting in their car and I told them what the conference had said for them to return. But they just didn't.
Alick Jackomos is remembered by many for his ability to bring people together.
After the tensions and politics during the day at the annual FCAATSI conferences in Canberra, Alick hosted concerts on Easter Saturday night where people would forget their differences. Southerners played the gum leaf, Islanders danced and everyone sang, creating a solidarity which no doubt helped ease tensions when politicking resumed the next day.
But, my job there, yeah, as I said, was a bit of showmanship — was to run the concert. First of all we'd have the annual meeting. It would be the conference then the annual meeting. But Saturday night we'd run a concert. And I'd had a lot of experience down in Melbourne with Eric Onus and Bill Onus running the annual ball here in Melbourne. And with Merle and Eric Onus and his wife when he used to run the dances at the MU hall [Manchester Unity Hall] for the Fitzroy people. That's in the '50s. So we said, 'We'll get a concert going'. This was the first year that we're in there. I think it was at Brassey House that particular year. So we just went around and asked all the delegates and — it's like a gold mine amongst Aboriginal people because everybody's a born artist! You know.
Leanne: What did they actually all start moving towards? I mean, what were some of your key finds?
Alick: Well there was always — Joe McGinness and his wife Amy used to do some dance — 'You love-a me I love-a you' — some Thursday Island [TI] thing there. And then Laurie Moffat would be on the gumleaf. And then there'd be others would just get up and sing together. And there was Eleanor Harding and some of the other TI women — Oh look, they were good, those TI women. We'd all sit on the ground and sing (hums a tune). And we'd all sing together. But what happened was there wasn't only Black singers and artists. And in a couple of years later we made it a commercial venue — the concert — at Ainslie. Garry Shearston, he's a famous singer. He came there. And we charged the public. We advertised it. Yes! And that helped our FCAATSI cause a little bit because the public paid to come in — the Canberra public. But everybody got up — was united there. 'We shall overcome' — we sang that for many years there. And that told you the sincerity of those people because those people that come there came to the conference. Although we had our little barneys and that during the conference and the annual meeting and disagreements — well you can't get 400 people in a hall and everyone's gunna agree. There were a lot of disagreements — but all those people that came to Canberra were sincere people. Most of them paid their own way or they might've got a small subsidy. We didn't stay in flash hotels. They came by car. Very few people flew there. So they were all sincere. And when we got there — you know as I says — we'd have our little barneys together. But at our social we'd all get together. We was all one. It was all forgotten.
Alick Jackomos recalled the crucial journey undertaken by Jean Jimmy to tell people in Canberra what was happening at Mapoon.
I remember Mrs Jimmy coming down. You might've heard of Mrs Jimmy, white haired lady from Mapoon or up that way, Bamaga. And she says, you know, 'They came in there' — this was the early '60s — 'while our men were away' — they were out fishing, I think — 'They come in. They dragged us from our homes. They burned our houses and they've taken our land'. That's where the big bauxite mine is. I can remember, and that issue was hotly discussed.
In the late 1960s many organisations moved to Aboriginal control, often with a loss of support from white organisations.
From then on we lost a lot of that white support. Maybe I'm biased because I'm not Aboriginal. But I think we could have said, 'Look, this is self-determination. Let's do it. But we still need you. You've helped us in the past.' And it just disappeared.
But it not only happened there. A couple of years before that it happened with the Aboriginal Advancement League. See, the Aboriginal Advancement League when it was established in the late '50s, early '60s, we had 28 branches including one branch in Devonport, Tasmania. And most of these branches were manned by white people. You might say some of them were paternalistic or do-gooders. But a lot of them were sincere in helping Aboriginal people. And they looked after those — they raised funds for the League. They'd become affiliates of FCAATSI. And as I said before — at that particular time a lot of Aboriginal people weren't in that position to take those — financially and otherwise.
Alick Jackomos recalled some strong Aboriginal leaders.
[Geraldine Briggs] — well, she's one of the great matriarchs of them all. When I talk of Geraldine Briggs I've gotta talk of Geraldine and Margaret Tucker, her sister, because they were both great fighters for Aboriginal affairs. Every year Auntie Gerry would be at FCAATSI. But it wasn't just Auntie Gerry, she always dragged her family there. All her daughters were there — well most of her daughters were there. She's a great fighter and she's done so much for Aboriginal affairs in Victoria. In fact, she's the only Aboriginal person that set up a branch on their own. She and her husband Uncle Selwyn Briggs — they established the Shepparton branch of the Aborigines Advancement League. It only went for three or four years. But she's worked so hard for Aboriginal affairs. There's so many things that I could talk about Auntie Gerry. She was involved with the Council for Aboriginal Women — the national branch. [Geraldine Briggs was the chairperson for a period of time of the National Council of Aboriginal Women] and her sister — Auntie Marg — was involved in the United Council of Aboriginal Women. There was a group of women, they were led by Marg Tucker and Auntie Geraldine Briggs and Auntie Gladys Nicholls. There was Merle, there was Joycie Johnson. There was Eleanor Harding. Excuse me I've forgotten. But Auntie Gerry and Auntie Marg the same. Without those women Aboriginal affairs wouldn't be what they are today.
Regarding Margaret Tucker, I first met Auntie Margaret a year or two before I met Auntie Geraldine Briggs. Auntie Marg I met in the late '30s when I used to go down to the Yarra bank with Doug Nicholls and William Cooper and that. And just at this point in time the Spanish Civil War was on in Spain and Auntie Marg Tucker had a very good friend called Helen Baillie. She was an English lady — a spinster — and worked a lot with Aboriginal people. Used to help them financially and run them around in her car and this type of thing. And Helen Baillie had just came back from Spain. She was a nurse. But with the Republican Army.
And, this particular occasion down at the Yarra bank — the people had just walked off at Cummeragunja. It was in February 1939. And Doug Nicholls and Jack Patten — I think Jack was there at that particular time. And some of the others were telling the people at the Yarra bank. Now the Yarra bank is something like Hyde Park in Sydney — telling'em about the people walking off of Cummera. And they were trying to raise some funds because a lot of the people walked off Cummeragunja and they crossed the river to Barmah and they camped in little tents or humpies or tents. I wasn't there so I don't know. But they were camped on the other side of the river. But they were getting no rations, from the New South Wales government, and the Victorian government wouldn't help them.
So we asked for donations — or Doug or William Cooper asked for donations. And they gave me the job of taking the tin around the white people there at the Yarra bank. And it was my job to shake the tin to get some donations. And the money that we got from that was given to Auntie Marg and Helen Baillie to buy blankets and food to take to the people up at Cummeragunja. But the other thing is Helen Baillie, Auntie Marg's friend, says to me, 'While you're collecting for the Aborigines here's a little book of stamps', something like you buy from post office now — penny stamps. And on it was an ambulance — raising funds for an ambulance for the Spanish relief fund in Spain! So here's me collecting with one hand for the Aborigines and while I'm putting in donations I'm saying, 'Buy a penny stamp to buy an ambulance for the Republican Army of Spain'. That's just one little incident with Marg.
But Marg Tucker did so much for Aboriginal affairs here in Victoria, in the social field. She was a singer. To me she was the lady with the ukulele. Everywhere that Auntie Marg went she had a ukulele. And she was the one that started — she and a white lady called Cora Gilsenan, who became Cora Gilsenan-Waters [supporting the Lake Tyers people]. She came from Metung in Gippsland — great worker with the Aboriginal people at Lake Tyers. They organised the first Aboriginal debutante ball ever to be held in Victoria. That was in September 1949. And not only that, she was at Wirth's Olympia. There was a play at Wirth's Olympia and one at the Princess Theatre — Out of the Dark. And that's where the name Moomba come [from]. Bill Onus had a play there, I think at Wirth's Olympia, and he called it Moomba. That's where we got our name Moomba from.
But Marg was involved in all those. But she was also involved in the political movement in Victoria. She had her Victorian Council of Aboriginal and Island Women. She was a member of the Advancement League. They've done so much. And both those ladies have been recognised. I think Auntie Marg was recognised as a Member of the British Empire and Auntie Geraldine got recognition with an Order of Australia or the Australia Medal.
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Alick Jackomos conducted by Leanne Miller on 12 December 1996
Richard Broome and Corinne Manning, A Man of All Tribes: The Life of Alick Jackomos, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2006.