“Tenacious” and “scheming” are not the first words that spring to mind as Murri Elder, Aunty Lesley Williams, chatters away, both arms enthusiastically gesticulating while her large brown eyes survey the crowd at the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba. It is only after a recounting of her extraordinary tale that the accuracy of these self-appointed terms becomes apparent.
“I wanted to bring our history alive. I wanted it to be acknowledged,” said Ms Williams about her motivation to document her life; a window into the injustices faced by the tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians who lived under the notorious Aboriginal Protection Act between 1869 and 1970.
It took her 20 years to write her book, Not Just Black and White: a conversation between mother and daughter, with her daughter, barrister Tammy Williams. Not because she didn’t want to write it, she told her audience, but because a lack of education meant that she struggled to put pen to paper.
Growing up in the government-controlled Aboriginal settlement of Cherbourg in Queensland, Ms Williams learned from an early age to view the world in terms of “whitefellas and blackfellas”.
“I grew up thinking ‘us and them’ because we blackfellas were removed from hundreds of towns across Queensland and put on special reserves, which we weren’t allowed to leave unless we got a permit.”
The first half of her life was governed by strict segregation – she was forbidden from playing with white children, going to school with white kids, and marrying white people, except with special permission: “Down one end of the town was the whitefellas, the white officials, and down the other end was the Aboriginal people who lived in the camp area.”
After receiving a short, harsh education, at 16 Ms Williams was sent away from the settlement to work as a domestic servant for a white family. There she worked long hours with no holidays, and never received any wages. Apart from the “odd pocket money”, her wages were confiscated by the government and withheld in a “trust”.
This was common for Aboriginal people living under the Act. It was only many years after her service as a domestic servant, when Ms Williams was a widowed mother of three in her forties, that she became aware that she had in fact been entitled to a wage, alongside tens of thousands of other Aboriginal workers.
After being prompted by a neighbour who provided her with a bundle of intriguing documents, Ms Williams began to dig deep. “When I was given access to government archives, I found the brown pocket money book that my employer had to fill in when she paid me – I was to be paid 3 pounds 10 shillings per week. I had no idea.”
With this crucial piece of evidence and an unshakeable determination to seek justice for her fellow workers, Ms Williams initiated the Justice for Aboriginal Workers campaign to reclaim stolen wages. “I was passionate about the campaign not just for myself, but for my elders,” she said. “Personally I wasn’t owed a lot of money. But for me it was about the principle – the injustice of having your money withheld in the first place.
“The records made me think, ‘I finally have this proof, and I can do something about this’. That’s what led me to campaign for the wages.”
The campaign took her and Tammy, bizarrely, to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch to attend a youth conference on human rights, and then to the United Nations where she presented her case to the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ms Williams and her daughter wrote hundreds of letters to politicians, bureaucrats, the Queen, Prince Philip, and even the White House in their bid to demand compensation for the Aboriginal workers.
After taking sole legal action against the state government, which was settled outside the court, in 2002 the Queensland government delivered a historic reparation package of $55.4 million to all Aboriginal workers whose wages had been withheld. “The elders born between the early 1900s and 1951 received a one-off payment of $4000, and the younger ones born between 1952 and 1956 received $2000.”
Even though the total value of wages confiscated was closer to a figure between $200 to $300 million, Ms Williams viewed the reparation package as a victory. “There was an acknowledgement that this happened,” she said. “And it also proved that we actually worked, and were used to prop up coffers in the government.”
She said her aim was to help reconciliation by promoting understanding. “It was well worth the fight – I wasn’t going to let up until they did something.”
At the close of the session, Aunty Lesley Williams left us with two pieces of advice: Firstly, check your superannuation fund and make sure it’s not just contributing to government coffers. Secondly, capture your family’s history; write it down before it’s lost, even if it takes you 20 years.
As published in the Sydney Writer’s Festival ‘At The Festival Magazine’, May 2016. Read the full story here