On this day: Happy birthday Sir Doug Nicholls, Governor of South Australia

By Natsumi Penberthy | December 9, 2015

Yorta Yorta man, Sir Doug Nicholls was one of the most powerful voices for indigenous civil rights in Australia.

ON 9 DECEMBER 1906 Douglas Nicholls was born at the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Mission* near the banks of the Murray River in northern Victoria.

His parents, Herbert and Florence, could probably never have predicted that their little boy would one day be knighted, not once, but twice.

Doug grew up to be a popular professional football player and a key voice in the struggle for indigenous civil rights. Later, as Sir Douglas Nicholls, he became Governor of South Australia, the first indigenous Australian to hold a Commonwealth position.

And his views would influence everything from the indigenous vote to full indigenous citizenship and parliamentary representation.

*Cummeragunja was also home of singing group, The Sapphires.

Footy fame: Lightning-quick Doug Nicholls

Doug’s largely peaceful childhood was disrupted before he turned 10 when his sister Hilda was taken by the Aboriginal Protection Board and became part of the Stolen Generations.

At the age of 14, Douglas himself was moved off his mission home under the auspices of the Aborigines Protection Act (1909) and found work nearby dredging the Murray.

However, he was a talented sportsman. At the age of 21 he became the only indigenous player in the Victorian Football Association. Despite his short stature – he stood only 158cm – he developed a reputation for speed, and was well regarded by fans and players.

Doug was named ‘best and fairest’ twice, appearing in three grand finals, until knee trouble forced him to retire from footballed aged 31.

Civil rights: Doug Nicholls’ hand in history

By then the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy had become the centre of indigenous life in Melbourne and through this community Doug was friendly with many of the men and women who would become the founding members of the indigenous civil rights movement (many of whom had moved there from ‘Cummera’).

In his late 20s he used his football fame to help lobby for indigenous representation in state and federal parliaments, and for a sympathetic federal body to address indigenous affairs.

At the time indigenous people still didn’t have full citizenship, which would grant them rights to old age pension or maternity benefits, and in many states indigenous people still had a lower minimum wage.

After he retired from football, Doug began providing welfare and religious services from a house in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.

A strong orator, Doug would be a key figure founding and leading many indigenous civil rights organisations. He was involved in organisations such as the Australian Aboriginals League and the Aborigines Advancement League, and he would be appointed to the government’s Aborigines’ Welfare Board and Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. All these organisations would be key in fighting for equal citizenship and voting rights for indigenous Australians. 

In 1967 Doug was part of a small delegration that went to Canberra to lobby for an amendment to the consitution that would recognise indigenous Australians as full citizens. This was put to a public refereundum and passed with YES vote of 90 per cent in 1967. 

Doug’s powerful oration skills

Doug’s most quoted speech would be at a Wesley Church speaking event in 1939. It was partially censored, but he was nonetheless able to try to explain to a largely non-indigenous audience the plight of indigenous Australians:

“The skeleton in the cupboard of Australia’s national life is its treatment of the aborigines…it is one of the saddest stories of modern times that we should have become an outcast in our own land, with not even the rights and privileges that are extended to many aliens. We appeal for the right of education, for at least some of the rights of citizenship, for the chance to become useful citizens in the land that was ours by birth.”

Ordained a Churches of Christ pastor in 1945, Nicholls later conducted a ministry from a chapel in Gore Street, Fitzroy. He and his wife Gladys established grocery and opportunity shops, welfare houses and worked with the community on indigenous welfare issues.

National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week – held annually in the first full week of July is said to have evolved from the ‘Aboriginal Sunday’ events that Doug organised at Gore street.

A life of many accolades

Doug eventually earned a slew of accolades for his work. He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1957, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1968, and would be knighted, twice, the first time in 1972. The National Tribal Council (1970-1972), a national indigenous political body, also declared him Bapu Mamus (a Torres Strait term for headman).

In January 1976, Sir Douglas was appointed Governor of South Australia. In March 1977 he hosted Queen Elizabeth during her royal tour and she bestowed on him a second knighthood. Sir Doug relinquished his governorship on 30 April 1977 following a stroke, but continued to preach in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy until his death in 1988.

Sir Douglas Nicholls died on 4 June 1988 and was given a state funeral and buried in Cummeragunja cemetery.

There are still many signs of this influence including an oval named after him in Northcote (the team that he first played for), a Canberra suburb gazetted in his name in 1991, a fellowship for indigenous leadership established in 2003 and a statue of Sir Douglas and Lady Galdys Nicholls, positioned in 2007 in Parliament Gardens, Melbourne. From 2016 the AFL’s Indigenous Round in May will also be named after him.