Pearl Gibbs

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Pearl Gibbs photograph in The Sun (Sydney) 22 October 1954: 2 was the only Indigenous member of the Aborigines Welfare Board (1954 - 1957)[1]

Pearl Gibbs (Gambanyi) (1901 – 28 April 1983) was an Indigenous Australian activist, and the most prominent female activist within the Aboriginal movement in the early 20th century. She was a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), and was involved with various protest events such as the 1938 Day of Mourning.[2]

Early life[edit]

Gibbs was born Pearl Mary Brown in La Perouse, Sydney, in 1901, to Mary Margaret Brown and David Barry.[2][3] Gibbs grew up in and around the town of Yass, where she attended Mount Carmel School along with her sister Olga.[2] In 1917, Gibbs and her sister moved to Sydney to work as domestics, Gibbs found a position in Potts Point.[4] Gibbs met other Aboriginal women and girls who were apprenticed as domestics by the Aborigines Protection Board and helped them make representations to the Board about their working conditions.[4]

Later she married a British sailor, with whom she had a daughter and two sons; however, they later separated, and Gibbs cared for the children on her own.[5]


In 1930, Gibbs helped run a camp to support unemployed Aboriginal workers, and in 1933 she organised a strike for Aboriginal pea-pickers. She was one of the first members of the APA, and attracted large crowds when she gave speeches in the Domain in Sydney. She began to work with APA president Jack Patten and secretary William Ferguson, and in 1938 she was involved with organising the Day of Mourning protests, which at the time was the most significant Aboriginal civil rights demonstration in Australia. She was a spokesperson for the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, the lobby group which was set up to carry on the work of the Day of Mourning Congress. Later in 1938 she succeeded Ferguson as secretary of the APA, and she held the position until 1940.

In 1941, Gibbs made the first radio broadcast by an Aboriginal woman, on the station 2WL in Wollongong. Her speech was on Aboriginal civil rights, and carefully scripted so that it would be allowed on the air.[6] Much of Gibbs' early work was done during a time when Aboriginal people were subject to controls on their movement, unless they had an exemption certificate from the relevant protection board.[2] Police would also monitor all public civil rights demonstrations. In 1993, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) released their file on Gibbs to the National Archives of Australia. The file included records of which political meetings Gibbs had attended, and clippings of newspaper articles in which she had been mentioned.[7]

Gibbs spent much of her adult life in Dubbo. In 1946, she and Ferguson established a branch of the Australian Aborigines' League in Dubbo, and she was the vice-president and later secretary of the branch throughout the 1940s and 1950s.[8] Later, in 1960, Gibbs set up a hostel to care for the families of Aboriginal hospital patients in Dubbo. From 1954 to 1957, Gibbs was the only Aboriginal member of the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board,[9] and she was the only woman to ever serve on the board. In 1956 she was a co-founder, along with Faith Bandler, of the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship (AAF), which was a mainly urban organisation designed to facilitate cooperation between Aboriginal political groups and white people sympathetic to the cause. Gibbs was able to use the AAF to develop connections with the trade union movement in New South Wales.[10]

Gibbs continued to be politically active throughout the 1970s, including supporting the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. She forged important links between the Aboriginal movement and other progressive political groups, notably the women's movement.[11] Gibbs died in Dubbo in 1983.


Gibbs was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001[12].


  1. ^ "Betty is not a criminal". Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954). 22 October 1954. p. 2. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d Goodall, Heather. "Gibbs, Pearl Mary (Gambanyi) (1901–1983)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  3. ^ Thompson, George; Markham, Colin. "Tribute to Pearl Gibbs". Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  4. ^ a b Cole, Anna; Haskins, Victoria K. (Victoria Katharine), 1967-; Paisley, Fiona; Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (2005), Uncommon ground : white women and Aboriginal history (New ed.), Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, ISBN 978-0-85575-485-3CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Horner 1983, pp. 10-12.
  6. ^ Pearl Gibbs'Radio Broadcast' (transcript) in Nicholas Jose (general editor) The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest NSW, 2009.
  7. ^ ASIO file on Pearl Gibbs at the National Archives of Australia
  8. ^ "Aboriginal Rights". Western Herald. New South Wales, Australia. 20 March 1953. p. 8. Retrieved 20 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  9. ^ "ABORIGINAL WOMAN ELECTED TO BOARD". The Land (2237). New South Wales, Australia. 20 August 1954. p. 2. Retrieved 20 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  10. ^ Horner 1983, pp. 16-18.
  11. ^ Kovacic 2004
  12. ^ "Victorian Honour Roll of Women List of Inductees 2001-2011" (PDF).

Further reading[edit]

  • Goodall, H. "Pearl Gibbs: Some Memories", Aboriginal History, vol 7, no 1, 1983, p 20.
  • Goodall, Heather, "Pearl Gibbs", in Radi, Heather (ed.), 200 Australian Women: A Redress anthology, Women's Redress Press, Broadway, N.S.W., [1988], pp. 211–213.
  • Gilbert, Kevin, "Pearl Gibbs : Aboriginal Patriot", Aboriginal History, vol. 7, no. 1, 1983, pp. 4–9.
  • Horner, Jack, "Pearl Gibbs : A Biographical Tribute", Aboriginal History, vol. 7, no. 1, 1983, pp. 10–12.

External links[edit]