Dedicated to change: ‘The important people were offside’

Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon (second left) with her family in January 1968, inside the new home created by the hard work of her parents and Reverend Frank Woodwell. Picture: Bega District News
Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon (second left) with her family in January 1968, inside the new home created by the hard work of her parents and Reverend Frank Woodwell. Picture: Bega District News

The humanitarian work of a reverend who worked tirelessly against racism 50 years ago was acknowledged in Bega last week.

Speaking from his home in Sandy Beach, north of Coffs Harbour, Frank Woodwell, now aged in his 90s recounted a time of forced segregation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

It was the late 1960s and civil rights, independence and student movements were pushing for social change around the world. Yet in Bega, Djiringanj and Ngarigo people, along with migrant workers and descendants of migrant workers were forced to live around the town’s tip at Stony Creek.

"Since the white man came to this country, the original Australians have been deprived of their opportunity to live on the same footing as those who took this country from them. A start must be made in Bega if our consciences are to be purged of the shame that is ours, through the dreadful line of the human demarcation that is condemning a section of the human race to a deplorable state of physical, social and mental degradation."

An excerpt from a sermon by Reverend Frank Woodwell

“They weren’t allowed at the front of the picture show, for example,” a 91-year-old Mr Woodwell said of the time.

Reverend Woodwell, who aimed to help improve living conditions described as “ghettos”, was acknowledged at St John’s Anglican Church on Friday.

After arriving in Bega in 1966 as church reverend, Mr Woodwell, along with community members Margaret and Roger Dixon, and Eileen Pittman worked hard to create housing for people, largely discriminated against since colonisation.

In 1967 he organised the sale of church land to what was then the Aboriginal Welfare Board, leading to the construction of a fully furnished house on Howard Ave.

“It was pretty hard going for a while, but you find a few friends, the school inspector was on side, whereas most of the important people were offside,” Mr Woodwell said.

“When you are breaking new ground, and shifting the status quo, it is interesting.”

Mr Woodwell said members of the community were seen as “second rate citizens”, with council and the media at the time resisting his vision of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians living side by side.

Bega Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon was a young girl when her family became the first Indigenous family to move into a housing at “The Glebe” in Bega, and said there is still misunderstandings with local government and the Djiringanj.

“It was very racist back in those days, even in school the Koori kids had to sit at the back of the class, even if we couldn’t hear the teacher,” she said.

“It was pretty scary, really scary.

“If we were seen in town after around six or seven o’clock the police would pick them up and lock them up, we had no rights after hours.

“We weren’t even allowed to walk into shops as young girls to buy clothes, we were once told not to touch clothes because we would put germs on them.

“I was absolutely shocked.”

Ms Dixon said the housing had possibly prevented her and her siblings from being taken away from her family.

“Because mum and dad had such a big family and the welfare board was knocking on doors to take kids away,” she said.

“Even though we wanted to live on the land, the land was taken from us, we just wanted to be comfortable and left alone.”

Despite the work of the community alongside Mr Woodwell half a century ago, Ms Dixon said housing is still an important issue in the region.

“People are finding it hard to get a house,” she said.

“Trying to get government to understand our point of view is hard, and there is still a lot of misunderstanding with local government surrounding the Djiringanj.

“There are still ignorant people around.”