Dulcie Flower, a Torres Strait Islander, first became involved in the work for Aboriginal advancement in Cairns where she was born and grew up.
In the 1950s, after moving to Sydney, Flower joined the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) where she met Bert Groves and began to think seriously about the issues which confronted Aboriginal and Islander Australians.
She explained the influence of Bert Groves as a mentor.
Oh look he was just a wonderful person. He was marvellous with young people. He was very keen that young people learn their history, learn their history of the movement. He came from Gulargambone. As a Queenslander I used to call that Galagumbone until they all corrected me! And he was — he was just a very strong, cultural person. Had great belief and confidence in Aboriginal people, once given the opportunities, to be leaders in the country. He had that vision. He used to say, ‘You have a choice of whether you’re going to take on board a whole lot of responsibility and be one of the top ones, or, whether you’ll stay with people, and work alongside people in their way to help them come forward. And it was, I guess, reinforcing some of [the] things I’d learned as a child. And he was just very strong. He was always prepared. What intrigued me was his sense of going to a meeting and making it count. Everything he did he did with a purpose. So before meetings he would be prepared: he would have his written statements, he would have his resolutions written out, he would have just everything. So you learned — you just learned with him.
Sue: How did you actually get involved with the Aborigines Progressive Association in New South Wales?
Dulcie: Well actually, as I say, I was born in Cairns, lived in Cairns. Came to Sydney because I'd done my nursing training in Cairns. I had booked into one of the large hospitals, teaching hospitals here in Sydney to do my midwifery, and of course missed my own people. I thought, 'Oh my goodness I do miss them!' And, there were no Black people round as patients or nurses or anything like that. And (I'm just trying to think) there was a nurse at the hospital, eventually when I got to Prince Alfred. So I had a talk to her. Oh golly you know it's marvellous, marvellous! She said 'Look we're all members of an organisation, would you like to come along?' And then I saw Bert Groves' and Joe McGinness's photos in the paper once, so I phoned all the Groves in the phone book till I found Bert Groves. So I saw Joe — because I'd known Joe. He'd been part of our group since I was a little child — I think I was about ten years old when Joe came into our group. So I phoned, spoke to Bert Groves. He said, 'What are you doing? Who are you?' etcetera. And I explained: 'Well I just want to know — I want to know what you're doing'. And it just sort of went from there! You know!
Dulcie Flowers recalled her busy year as the General Secretary of FCAATSI, as well as the other positions she held.
At long last I was able to put names, faces to names, that I'd read in a lot of material Bert had given to me. I did know Faith Bandler. I had met Faith. I made it my business to because Bert said to do that. And I met Pastor Doug Nicholls — he was a great man. The singer Harold Blair. A whole range of people who were just names to me before that. And the whole thing was just absolutely intriguing. There were all these Aboriginal people, but at the same time there were people who were non-Aboriginal, and non-Torres Strait, and they seemed to have a very good grasp of Aboriginal issues and seemed to be people of a special type. And I looked at them and thought, 'Now they've given up their Easter, their Easter holiday to come and be with Aboriginal people. Just what's going on!' And it was quite incredible. Here was this big gathering. It was huge for me. So I listened. It was terribly exciting. I don't think I slept very much for the time I was there because after listening to everything, you sort of have to get back into your room and sit and think about it for a while. So I was overwhelmed.
I did close work with Ray Peckham. Ray was marvellous. He helped me understand a lot of things as well. So when issues were raised then we saw there were factions coming up or splits or people differing and I thought, 'Oh well that's good. Now it looks as though there's going to be a big squabble here! Who's going to win?' That was sort of how I first saw it. Who's going to win this big squabble? And I used to get worried and a bit panicky! It was a bit different to what I thought. I thought they were just all going to sit down and just do everything — you know — was how I thought it was going to be. But I didn't realise the meetings were going to take all this.
At that time also — and I found out later this was sort of routine — there was a closed Aboriginal session, closed session. And here you had Aboriginal people from all over Australia, with the exception of the West to start with and Tasmania. So I must correct myself when I say all of Australia because it was only in '69, with Stan Davey in the West that we were able to get Jack Davis and a couple of people — Vince Copley and a couple of people from the West. And they — they were foreign. And then when we got Tasmania everybody said — they all just stared. And the person said, 'Why are you all staring at me?' 'We didn't think there were any Aboriginal people in Tasmania. We thought you were all wiped out!' So, for starters this was something absolutely marvellous that people could come together from other parts of the country. And then we heard their problems and their gains — and I must put the two together because every problem seemed to give the people more strength to go forward. I don't know — their spirits were never ever daunted. There's still pride and there's still — they've seen Aboriginal people bow their heads. They've never done that. They've always had this pride in being Aboriginal. And this is this particular group. Others, of course, used to say there were all other nationalities, but the ones that we had coming in, they came for a purpose — and that was they were no longer prepared to put up with the restrictive legislation. Seems like that.
In the late 1960s the influence of the women's movement and feminist thinking was felt in FCAATSI.
Dulcie: Faith said: ‘Right at this we have a closed you know [session]. We had to lock the doors! We really had to lock the doors ‘cause we used to meet at the High School [Telopea Park] so we had a special session. And we used to take about two hours on Friday — lock the doors.’ Well! The men used to be knocking on the doors. The husbands’d be there. ‘We want to know what you’re talking about!’ (laughs) and Lamby — it was Lamby always wanting May, his wife, knocking, ‘Is May there? Is May there?’ ‘Get away Lamby! Get out — go on you men!’
Sue: Lamby McBride?
Dulcie: Yeah. One of the older women — one of the bigger women would get up and say, 'Whadda you want?' (laughs) Slam the door shut in his face (laughing) and, 'Get away! Get away!' but they'd be bumping the walls. And then they'd want to know ...
Oh gosh! New South Wales women always wanted the Welfare Board disbanded. That was theirs. That was the political one. There was employment. So while there were some mainly domestic-type issues concerning family, concerning living conditions — they talk about lack of water, and how they couldn't look after their families — lack of a proper house and families living in cars and things like that. So we were then able to bring that forward and it would be able to be fitted into the various categories or the various subcommittees that FCAATSI had. And the particular people on those committees would then take those issues up. And whatever the women said there'd be minute takers, there'd be voting — properly you know. Everything. There'd be anger. There'd be tears. There'd be a whole range of things.
I'll never forget in the women's session once there was one of the women brought down from one of the reserves — or missions as they were — back up in north of Cairns who was saying, you know, what they did — what the women did. They had their women's meeting and they raised the money to give to the poor people of China. Now the missionary on this particular mission was taking money, what little bit of money that Aboriginal women could produce, to give to the poor people of China. Well everybody screamed! I remember your Aunt Gerry [addressing Leanne Miller, referring to Geraldine Briggs] was there at the time and she was ropeable! Old Gerry, Faith, everybody was infuriated. And this poor woman got so confused she started crying, because she thought the women were getting annoyed with her. And she started crying and she sort of kept away from us. But she was so pleased and happy to be able to be given the opportunity to talk about life on her mission. And this was one of the major things in their lives that they were doing: raising funds for the poor people of China. So the missionary who was all there (chuckles) — I mean this is what used to happen!
So there were these style of things as well that we brought forward and put to the main [meeting] — condemning that action and doing all that sort of thing ...
Of course you haven't [heard of the women's sessions before]. But check with Faith on what happened to the women's sessions [minutes]. That was absolutely vital. They were vital. So even back then the role of women was terribly important. But this is where we had the one tap on the reserve and the cardboard and corrugated iron houses with cracks packed with newspaper, kids on dirt floors. This is where we fought bottle feeding, way back then even, and the Nestle company. And we heard about women giving birth on verandahs behind screens and not having access to the labour wards within various places. Hospitals having isolation wards for Aboriginal women and Aboriginal men.
The horrible thing was the lack of money and people working their insides out. And don't forget back in this period nearly all Aboriginal people worked! And the horrible thing, that was always on the boil, that was women's struggle as well as the main struggle which was money. That became an issue because there were things like while they worked, their money was going to fund the mission. Some was also put in the Commonwealth Bank and from there went into consolidated revenue. Police — especially up in the north of Queensland the back of Queensland round the Gulf country — who were the protectors for Aboriginal people back up there, cashed their cheques. They were given pieces of paper, by reserve managers and directed to certain shops and they could take the equipment they needed. They'd want little radios, little things like that. No money ever changed hands. So they don't know what prices — when I say no money changed hands, the money went from the reserve manager to the shopkeeper, not the people. We heard Abigail Ware, who worked over at Yarrabah as a typist, say that after three months she didn't have enough money to buy a pair of shoes. Didn't have enough money to buy a pair of shoes for herself! And there was this indignity that the way that they were being treated was to make them cower, to make them be dependant. And yet, the natural dignity they had, so it was just incredible.
So this is where all these sort of issues came out. God imagine — we all used to cry and get angry but with each meeting — with each meeting this issue was looked at, that issue and others and so on it went. So that was incredible.
Dulcie Flower recalled the system of subcommittees where the solid campaign work took place.
So you had all these subcommittees: one for housing, one for education, eventually one for health, one for employment issues, one — and would you believe a doctor? We had Dr Barry Christophers who used to look after the trade unions and employment. He just had a flair for that and he loved it. And he used to do all that. And they were so successful. They changed. And John Baker would have probably told you about that. We looked at all the awards. We looked at awards and decreed that people would be given a mere pittance and the rest made up in food and clothing. And award wages, things like that. So that was all changed. In '68 I happened to go to the Arbitration court as a follow-up of work that FCAATSI had done. It'd taken ten years to get it to the Arbitration court — and this is the Aircraft Industry Award, which involved thirteen unions. And they all had to — it involved a lot of money, about six thousand pounds in those days. It was a lot of money. You know — right back from when they started. So they had to raise the money. FCAATSI had to raise the money to pay for people and in the Aircraft Industry Award there were the words, anybody could be employed — with the exception of Aboriginal people. And so there were discriminatory clauses preventing the employment of Aboriginal people in the Aircraft Industry Award.
The unions played a vital role in subsidising travel and helping Aboriginal people to get to annual conferences.
'Well we've got money. We can sponsor one delegate — we could sponsor two delegates — we could'. Wharfies, Teachers Federation, Builders Labourers, BWIU — all those unions. Some of the people up there, people like Harry Hall — and I must make mention of Harry here — Harry Hall was from Walgett. He's still around. Harry was a brilliant man — and still is. Because Harry used to nominate for the local Council up there year after year off his own bat. Harry used to always come down, bring a car load. Back in those days very few Aboriginal people had cars, and sometimes we'd have to get money to send to him and say, 'Okay Harry come down'. But then the tyres would blow or the engine would blow or something like that and it was getting them back home once they were down. And there were times at the workshop when we'd just have to pass the hat round to get this group back home.
Kenny Brindle used to work, used to be involved with Redfern All Blacks because he lived in Redfern. And there were a few times that we had the All Blacks bus full of people. So people, if they could just get to Sydney and get on Brindle's bus, we'd come down. Well, I think he must've had the oldest buses in the whole of Australia! Rickety old buses that'd just plod along.
Delegates stayed at Brassey House when they were in Canberra. Money was tight.
We had no money to pay for a lot of accommodation for people so what we'd do is double up the rooms. And you'd smuggle people in! (laughing) So one room — there'd be a room in one name but then there might be three or four people staying in the room. No money for food, so what we'd do, Brindle would go round the breakfast table and say to people — he'd go up and say to certain people, 'Order a big breakfast'. 'I don't want a big breakfast! I only want this!' 'Order a big breakfast!' 'Alright'. So he'd come round: 'Do you want that?' 'No'. He'd come round: 'Did you get the big breakfast?' 'Yes'. (laughs) They were marvellous! Brassey House — you know one of the hostels down there.
Sue: You used to stay there every time?
Dulcie: Yeah — stayed there every time and then gradually the numbers got too big so we used to have to go (laughing) somewhere else!
Leanne: So why did you stay at Brassey House for?
Dulcie: Because it was close to the school at the time. The school was just around the corner. We used to go to the High School.
Sue: Telopea Park — wasn't it?
Dulcie: That's right. Telopea Park High School — Brassey House was the hostel. Well the managers and the people on staff used to count heads at breakfast and you could see them looking puzzled because there were other faces used to appear (laughs).
Leanne: Was it a case of someone'd go out and someone'd move in?
Dulcie: Yeah something like that yeah — along those lines. But in any case Ken Brindle used to do the rounds early — get in early and say to various people — like John Baker, Faith and myself and that — 'Order big breakfasts' — as I was telling you. And then he'd come round later while the people weren't looking, he'd grab all the food and run upstairs (laughing) with it! He'd say, 'Look I've got four blokes in my room' and then somebody else'd come down, 'Any extra food? (laughs) I've got three people in my room.' And if you'd sent them down [to breakfast] there would've been extra charges and we just didn't have the money. As I say we'd whip round, the hat'd go round during the conference, and so we'd divvy that up as best we could at least to get the people home, if nothing else. So there were all these sorts of things.
The social functions used to be wonderful! Saturday night was the big social night and that was Alick Jackomos' turn up. Oh he used to do all this — so he'd run round and he'd look at everybody else and he'd say to people, 'Put your name down. Will you sing? Will you recite? Will you do this?' And they'd get up and dance. And so we used to go to the soccer club then. They'd throw their doors open and the people'd sort of have a few drinks and a great old time. The students would get up — there'd be uni students there as well, you know. I'll never forget the Onuses — Eric and Bill, that's Lin's uncle and father — [they] used to always get up and sing.
Dulcie Flower reflected on her decision to stand as General Secretary.
So I thought about it. Bert Groves and the people from APA decided to nominate me. And I rang my husband because my children were only very small at the time. And I said, 'Look I've been asked to do this. I think I'd like to try it. I don't know whether I'll succeed'. And Jack [Horner] said, 'Have a go'. And I thought, 'Well, I can only try. And if I can't do it, I can resign and somebody else can take it on!' But I kept it just for the twelve months. Once again, I often think back and I think if my children had been a lot older I'd have continued and continued, because it was the most — oh, it was hard, it was hard. It was at that year the whole conference decided that the thrust had to be land. And I worked my insides out on land, and on this issue I learned a lot, as I said, Bert did talk to me before about it so I kept staying with Bert and Alf Clint and Faith.
And it was having this but it was a learning process. It was learning just how to go about — how to do this big big job. And I was the first time that a non-European person had had it. So there was a hell of a pressure to succeed. I had to think — well I was 28 at the time, going on for 29. And I thought, I'm dealing with people who've had all this experience in life — all this experience in their jobs. My work had been that of a registered nurse so I knew organising in that way. And I had to think, well management now, secretarial work. There are similarities if I can build on that. Talk about being dumb, hey? Do (laughing) you go in and even think you can do something? But it was important. It was so important. I gave it a lot of thought. I thought, 'Na it's gotta come to an Aboriginal — it's gotta come now'. Because we were the generation who had our skills, who had confronted the main society and had one foot in. That was Charlie Perkins, Naomi [Mayers], Joyce — Joyce Clague, John Moriarty — all of us — this group. Margaret Valadian — a whole group of us, all — you know — give or take a few years — we're all within that era. So we were the lot who had a lot more formal education than previous generations. And we had one foot here. So it was important that this not go back to a non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait person, but that people take this on now and push it. So that was, that was sort of my contribution to grab it and say to people: 'Well okay here it is now. What are we going to do with it?' And I guess that is mainly what I did — 'Here's the job, okay, you've got it now. Let's get on with it.'
Well! I was fought, challenged. And the thing is there's all this work to do — all this without an office. I had a bomby, little, old typewriter — I think old Con O'Clerchen had given me one that was his wife's. Con was an Irishman and I think in Con's mind he was still fighting the old Black and Tan wars from Ireland! But Con was marvellous. Con used to drive people around. He bought a vehicle. (Con died a long long time ago.) Con said to me at the time, 'You could use Grace (his wife's name was Grace and they used to live with Aboriginal people in Redfern — alongside them and everything). You can use Grace's typewriter but I'd like to get it back at the end of this. You'll put it to good use.' And I did! And if you could've seen this bomby, little, old typewriter that I used to do all that! You know — it's incredible.
I used to sit up till about 3 o'clock most mornings. The FCAATSI office was a bedroom in my home mainly, to start with. So I piled my two little kids in the one room and used one room as an office. Then, kept a bit of housekeeping money and bought an old filing cabinet and a desk. I've still got that desk. And, oh jeez there's been a lot of work done on that. And so on it goes. You know things were done in that way. I received a little bit of money towards the cost of phone calls. So I kept a record of phone calls — they were paid for — but the rental and everything we didn't accept.
And I guess you could say that a lot of the funding, a lot of the maintenance of the office and everything was out of my husband's pocket but also out of the pocket of Hans Bandler as well — for Faith's activity and things like this — you know. But that's sort of how it was done. I didn't have a salary. I think towards the end, when I was doing the conference organising I earned a little bit of money, just a little bit, to get the '68 conference up and running. There was a little bit of money available then for that.
Over the next year Dulcie worked on the development of a national land rights campaign as well as dealing with the day-to-day demands as secretary of what, by this time, was a large and complex organisation. She did not stand for the General Secretary position the following year, but continued an active involvement in the Aborigines Progressive Association.
In 1970 she convened the Health Committee of FCAATSI. The following year, together with Mum Shirl, Gordon Briscoe, Fred Hollows and others, she was instrumental in setting up the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, where she worked for many years.
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Dulcie Flower conducted by Sue Taffe and Leanne Miller on 9 November 1996