All Saints | Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls: Footballer, organizer, preacher, saint

Next week is All Saints, when we particularly remember the people both before us and beside us, the living and the dead, with whom we are gathered in the body of Christ. This week, then, I’d like to introduce you to one of the saints, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls.

Charismatic and confident, Yorta Yorta man Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls (1906-1988) grew up at the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve on the banks of the Murray River. He was the fifth child of Herbert and Florence. As an Aboriginal person born in the colony, he lacked land, rights and recognition; and so much of his life was devoted to caring for others also suffering the consequences of dispossession, and campaigning for these basic human rights.

Nicholls knew the violence of colonial rule first hand. When he was born, Cummeragunja was operating fairly autonomously. However, as Nicholls grew, so did the powers of the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board. In 1915, the government decided his older sister Hilda should be sent to the Cootamundra Training Home for Girls, and the police turned up to forcibly remove her.

Protesting vehemently, her mother climbed into the police car and refused to leave her daughter or get out. The police drove away with both Florence and Hilda. Twenty miles down the road, they dumped Florence and left her to walk home to Cummeragunja alone. This brutal experience had lasting effects on Nicholls and, of course, his whole family. At the age of 14, he too was moved off the reserve and sent to work.

Nicholls was a natural sportsman, both speedy and muscular. In 1929, he won both the Nyah and the Warracknabeal gift, winning £100 at each event as well as a box of cutlery at Warracknabeal! As a footballer, he played for Northcote then Fitzroy; in 1935, he became the first Aboriginal player to be selected for the Victorian Inter-State Team. To supplement his seasonal footballer’s income, Nicholls also travelled with Jimmy Sharman’s boxing show. In sporting contests, he had to contend not only with his opponents, but racist abuse from the crowds. Fitzroy fans ‘affectionately’ called him the Flying Abo; others called him much worse.

When his mother died, Nicholls went back to the Church of Christ Chapel in Northcote where they had worshipped together; he had a conversion experience in 1932. He was baptized soon afterwards, and began witnessing to his faith among footballers and other folk. By 1935 he was serving as a lay preacher, leading worship services and hymn sings at the Gore Street Mission Centre in Fitzroy. There he cared for people struggling with alcohol, gambling and other addictions, and mediated with the police. As more and more folk gathered around him, they formed the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia; as their pastor, he was paid one pound per week. He took on other jobs to supplement this meagre income. In 1945, Nicholls was ordained.

He was a born leader. With fellow Yorta Yorta man William Cooper’s encouragement, Nicholls joined the group lobbying the federal government to take over Aboriginal affairs. This required constitutional change. At the now-famous Day of Mourning protest held in Sydney on 26 January 1938, Nicholls and others therefore sought constitutional recognition of Aboriginal persons as full and equal citizens. Nicholls declared, ‘our people are still influenced and bossed by white people. I know we can proudly hold our own with others if given the chance.’ It took another three decades of lobbying and activism for the campaign to achieve its goal; Aboriginal people were not recognized as citizens until the 1967 referendum.

In 1941, Nicholls enlisted; but by 1942, he was home again, having been asked by police to act as mediator between servicemen and Aboriginal residents of overcrowded and dilapidated Fitzroy housing. He based himself in Gertrude Street, where he engaged in welfare and religious work.

In January 1943, Nicholls initiated ‘Aboriginal Sunday.’ This first event featured a gum leaf orchestra and choir. By 1955, this day had moved to July; it later evolved into National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week. In recent years, the January date for Aboriginal Sunday has been reinstituted by many churches, and we here at Sanctuary mark it each year, just as we usually mark NAIDOC week also.

With his wife, Gladys, Nicholls established a home for Aboriginal girls, and also purchased holiday units in Queenscliff for Aboriginal folk to use. Their own home was known for its hospitality; it overflowed with people needing food, shelter, and a listening ear, plus many other visitors. Gladys was his right hand, endlessly organizing, fundraising, encouraging, and, of course, teaching Sunday School. Their work was funded through diverse sources: an honorarium, donations, sports coaching, and income derived from grocery and op shops which Gladys established.

Through the Aboriginal Advancement League and other Indigenous organizations, Nicholls engaged in political activism. At a time when Aboriginal people were not recognized in the Constitution, the AAL lobbied for Aboriginal rights, voice, and land. They protested the Woomera rocket range, the closure of Lake Tyers reserve, and policies of assimilation; they petitioned the UN regarding land rights; as noted above, they petitioned the Commonwealth government to take responsibility for Aboriginal disadvantage and affairs.

Over the years, Nicholls received many honours including, in 1957, an MBE ‘for distinguished services to the advancement of the Aboriginal people.’ Nicholls quipped that MBE stood for ‘more black than ever.’ In 1972, he and Gladys travelled to London where he became the first Aboriginal person to be knighted.

In 1976, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls was appointed the 28th Governor of South Australia, the first person of colour to hold the office of governor in an Australian state, and to this day the only Aboriginal person. Sadly, he did not hold this role for long, as he suffered a severe stroke in 1977 and was forced to retire. Even in his short tenure, racist caricatures of him and his family appeared in the media, and concerns raised about his appointment were based not on his competence, but his race. Yorta Yorta man that he indeed was, his final duty as governor was to host Queen Elizabeth II at Government House. He died in 1988, and is buried on country, at Cummeragunja.

Nicholls was a visionary. Despite not being granted citizenship himself until he was over 60, he could imagine a future in which Aboriginal people would be fully recognized by the nation and receive truly equal opportunities: and while to our enduring shame we still have a long way to go, much has indeed changed since his childhood. His political activism, including his work towards the 1967 referendum, is now reflected by others in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the subsequent campaign for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution.

And his work on Aboriginal Sunday and NAIDOC week created important spaces for colonizers to hear from and better acknowledge First Peoples, learn and speak truth about our history, learn more about Indigenous cultures, and stand with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who seek justice, voice, treaty, and everything else. There is still a great need for further listening, learning and allyship, and of course for reparations: but thanks to the work of Nicholls and many others, we have a much broader vision of what this country is and can be.

An extraordinary man, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls is one of the saints who has gone before us, and who has joined the great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on. For his life, work and witness: Thanks be to God.


Emailed to Sanctuary, 26 October 2022 © Sanctuary, 2022. Image credit: National Museum of Australia. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country. Full acknowledgement of country here

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