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Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls


Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls

Scott Hawkins

Over the course of this week you will hear a lot about one of my heroes, Sir Douglas Nichols (especially in the AFL states). A lot will be talked about his activism, football, and political involvement. 

What you may not hear is that his full title is Pastor Sir Douglas Nichols. 

He is exactly the kind of pastor I hope to be. 

Doug Nicholls, was the sixth child of Herbert and Florence and was born at the Cummeroogunja Aboriginal mission, on December 9, 1906. As an eight year old boy, he watched his 16-year-old sister Hilda forcibly removed by the police and that was his shocking introduction the Stolen Generations.

On the mission, Doug was only permitted a grade 3 education, so for work he collected tiger and brown snakes for sideshow organisers, who would pay him 1 shilling (or 10 cents) per snake. He left the mission at 13 and picked up what education he could, but could not read or write adequately until he was 21. Unemployment was a regular occurrence. 

In 1927,  he hitchhiked to Melbourne from the bush and was living rough in the city, sleeping in fruit boxes at the Queen Vic Market, but he talked his way into training with the Carlton Football Club. He was 20, tough, fast and skilled, but he was cut from the list when the other players said they didn't want him on the team and the trainers refused to rub him down because he was black, and they said, he stank.

Though only five feet two inches tall, he became a great footballer, and in 1927, after being rejected by Carlton, he joined Northcote in the VFA and played in the 1929 premiership side. To earn money in the off seasons, he fought with Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe and also sprinted professionally, winning both the Warracknabeal and Nyah gifts. 

In 1933 he was picked up by Fitzroy, and was the only aboriginal player in the VFL at that time. He quickly became a crowd favourite. He was third in the 1934 Brownlow Medal count and the following year became the first Aborigine to represent Victoria. 

Doug's dreams though we're bigger than just sport and whilst a member at Northcote Church of Christ (now Northern Community), he began church planting at the Gore Street Mission in Fitzroy.  

In 1943, he became the foundation pastor of the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia by planting the Fitzroy Church of Christ Aborigines' Mission. Beyond functioning as a traditional church, it also became a welcome place for Aboriginal people, and provided comfort and assistance to many people who were homeless, in need of help or were disenfranchised. He cared for those who were trapped in their alcohol abuse, gambling and other social problems. He helped those who were in trouble with the police. He was paid one pound per week.  

By the mid-'40s, Nicholls was an incredible activist for his people. In a famous talk in 1938, he said the Aboriginal people were "the skeleton in the cupboard of Australia's national life" and "outcasts in our own land". The Age newspaper headlined Rev. Sir Doug Nicholls as "The Australian Gandhi". 

He helped set up the Aboriginal Advancement League, a forerunner of ATSIC, and, for 15 years, was its director and field officer. He was one of the first campaigners for land rights and for citizenship which was finally accorded his people in the 1967 referendum. 

Immensely popular with both white and indigenous communities, he was named Victorian Father of the Year in 1962 and King of Moomba in 1973. In 1972, he became the first Aborigine to be knighted and in 1976 was appointed governor of South Australia. In 1991 they even named the Canberra suburb of Nicholls after him. 

After his death his family said; "Grandfather left a lot of good memories for black and white people as well. He had a saying, probably plagiarised from someone else, that you can play a tune on the piano's black notes and you can play a tune on the white notes, but if you want harmony you've got to play both."  

My favorite story of Pastor Sir Doug that has now become legend still inspires me. 

Douglas was sent to fight in WW2, something that was difficult enough for an Aboriginal man, fighting for a King and country that didn't even recognize his own citizenship. But whilst he was away the Fitzroy Police along with the local Aboriginal community petitioned the Army to allow Pastor Doug to be recalled home to mediate in the racial tensions developing between the servicemen and the Aboriginal families living in crowded and dilapidated Fitzroy housing, and because the local Council were unable to handle the social issues of the area without their church fully functioning. 

I wonder what the likelihood of any local authority beginning a petition on behalf of any church I have run, begging for it's mission to return, because it was so vital to the life of the local community? 

In a recent interview, the AFL commissioned filmmaker or the Indiginous Round was asked what Sir Doug's greatest achievement was, and he said that it was impossible to say, but that he shuddered to think what Australia would be like now if it wasn't for people like Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls. I would have to agree.