At a time when Aboriginal people had no rights and were forced to reject their culture and traditions to adopt the Australian way of life, the late Jack Patten stood up and created change. He spent his life fighting for Aboriginal rights and instigating equality throughout society, and history holds the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning in 1938 as one of his achievements. With NAIDOC Week starting on Sunday his great great grandson Guy Patten, of Metford, reflects on his courage to succeed.
Jack Patten was never content with the inequality bestowed upon Aboriginal people. He envisaged a world where Aboriginal culture and values were cherished and people were given equal opportunities regardless of the colour of their skin.
Achieving this became his life’s mission.
He was born John Thomas Patten on March 28, 1905, at Cummeragunja, an Aboriginal reserve near Moama on the NSW side of the Murray River, and showed an interest in education from an early age under the direction of his schoolmaster.
School education was not compulsory for Aboriginal children in the early 1900s but Mr Patten, along with his six younger siblings, completed their primary education and attended high school.
He was a firm believer in education, which had been stressed upon him by his parents and grandfather, and worked hard at high school in West Wyalong to earn a scholarship into the Australian Navy.
But his hopes of a career in the navy were shattered when he was rejected because he was Aboriginal.
He pursued general labour jobs wherever he could and then joined a boxing troupe in 1927 where he
boxed under the nickname Ironbark, at Casino, and met his wife Selina Avery.
After they married at Tabulam in NSW in 1931 he was confronted with the appalling living conditions Aboriginal people endured at Baryugil, including Aboriginal children being restricted from the local school.
It was at this time that his quest to achieve Aboriginal rights began.
In protest he organised a group of men to dismantle the school house and rebuild it on Baryulgil Square – a parcel of land owned by and populated with Aboriginal people.
Authorities moved the school back to its original location, but agreed to allow the Aboriginal children to attend the school along with the farmers’ children.
His involvement continued when he moved to south-west Sydney after the start of the great
depression and joined an existing community of dispossessed Aboriginal people including his younger brother George and father Jack.
He spoke each Sunday at the Domain, and after being exposed to White Australian politics, was given
the opportunity to publish the first Aboriginal newspaper The Abo Call.
Through this experience he met William Ferguson with whom he co-founded the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1937.
Mr Patten was concerned about living conditions of Aboriginal people in rural areas so he hitchhiked from Southern Queensland to Western Victoria to record their concerns and publicise them in his newspaper.
It was after this that he held the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning at Australia Hall in Sydney with William Ferguson on January 26, 1938 - the sesquicentenary of European settlement in Australia. Mr Patten opened the event.
“On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday,” he said. “Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live.
“Aborigines throughout Australia are literally being starved to death. We refuse to be
pushed into the background. We have decided to make ourselves heard.”
Mr Patten used the speech to campaign for full citizen rights, the old age pension, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed and the right to a full education, which were automatically given to white people.
“We do not wish to be herded like cattle and treated as a special class,” he said.
Less than a week later he led a deputation of 20 Aboriginal men and women and met with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, his wife Dame Enid, and the Minister for the Interior Jack McEwan where they spoke about the lack of equality.
Mr Patten issued Mr Lyons with a copy of Aborigines Progressive Association’s 10-point plan for citizens rights which outlined their requests to be brought up to the same standard of living as white people.
Mr Patten’s great great grandson Guy Patten said his family was proud of the fight Mr Patten led and his mantra of remaining true to yourself and remembering where you were from had been passed down through the generations.
“For him to step out of his comfort zone at that time to fight for Aboriginal rights was huge, and to achieve what he did was amazing,” he said. “It’s inspiring that my great great grandfather led the fight for Aboriginal rights in Australia.
“I’m proud to be related to someone who meant so much to Aboriginal people. He had great leadership qualities and he knew how to talk to people. What he did had a major effect on how
Aboriginal people were treated because they were not treated as equal until what he was doing started to hit the papers.”
Mr Patten campaigned for the law to be changed so Aboriginal people could serve their country in World War II without lying about their heritage, and when the change eventually came he enlisted in the army on December 12, 1939 and served in Egypt.
On his return, his family relocated to Northern NSW where the Aborigines Protection Board took his six oldest children, leaving only the youngest with his mother.
Mr Patten learnt of his eldest son’s location and retrieved him despite government efforts. They fled to the safety of Cummeragunja. His daughters were taken to Cootamundra and trained as domestic serfs.
Mr Patten served as president of the Victorian Aboriginal Elders Council in his final years. He died in a car accident in 1957 and was survived by his wife and their seven children.