ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS ABOUT THE BLOCK - 2002
30 April 2002
Fr Ted Kennedy was a social justice advocate and parish priest of St Vincent’s Church in Redfern for thirty years. Father Kennedy was inspired by the reformist Vatican II movement of the early 1960s and played a part in establishing Aboriginal ownership of the Block. He worked closely with Aboriginal activist Mum Shirl [Shirley Smith] to support the Aboriginal Medical Service, to which he donated a hall formerly owned by St Vincent’s. He died on May 17, 2005 aged 74, after a long period of illness.
What was your first experience of the Block, Ted? Of the people there?
Father Ted Kennedy: Well it had already been bought by the famous fellow now, Ian Kiernan. This company called IBK had bought up a lot of the houses so by and large my first experience was that there was no one around. I mean if there [were] Aborigines camping there, this was [done] very surreptitiously so I didn’t really have that experience. I wasn’t focusing on the Block but I was focusing on the people who were teeming in both from places like Moree, but also well beyond − from Queensland.
I first got to know people like Nancy Duncan, who was a fifty-odd year old woman who came all the way from Woorabinda. Some famous people like Aunty Martha Beckett who turned up from Queensland and she had a sister who was a pretty famous woman, I can’t think of her name right now. She actually settled in a house in The Block which is now destroyed and she drew a lot of people around her. She was an older woman and very capable of running a household.
I am trying to think about what happened right at the very beginning. Initially it wasn’t that people were coming into the presbytery and making it their home. What was happening initially was John Butcher and I, we tried to encourage, cajole the Aboriginal people to come and take food. So in those very, very early days we were having mass and we were inviting people after mass to come and have lunch. Some people did come. I always remember Chris Tilly coming with her husband, Phil. There were a few Aborigines starting to come to have lunch in the kitchen. In fact when we went to find them, they were all packed in the kitchen like sticks, and ‘Juke Box’ was one who just was to retiring to come out and join us at lunch. People who were obviously well-heeled white people were coming as well and I remember Juke Box tapping his tummy and saying, 'We can’t eat with white people.' So there was that phase when we were finding it very hard to introduce Aborigines into the home of the church. But gradually just by sheer numbers, we did and so that is when a sort of second phase occurred.
Did you invite them to stay then?
Father Kennedy: Yes, and so some did. But the first phase really was something to do with just providing warmth and accommodation, not only in the presbytery but also down at the hall.
Which hall was that?
Father Kennedy: That is where the present medical service is working. That was once just an old parish hall, you know. The racism from the St Vincent de Paul Society was absolutely enormous. Even though most of them weren’t parishioners, nevertheless they came in. There was one bloke who was the president of the St Vincent de Paul Society and he had a house around in Pitt Street. The habit of the parish priest was if an Aborigine turned up at the door, he or she was sent round to the house with a chit or something. That man’s name I can’t think of, but his wife was so bitter. The former curate told me once that she had been so racist that she would not allow an Aboriginal person to be even at a home mass. So there was that sort of dichotomy between forms of religion. There was a parish that was functioning on the lines of there being home masses, but the moment that Aborigines were thought to be anywhere near it, they were excluded. Then they had a meeting.
So where did these people come from, mainly from Moree? The work had run out with the cotton picking?
Father Kennedy: There was a very strong existing community and God knows how they lived because by and large, Nancy Duncan for instance, it took me days just to get her on to the pension. It required a lot of work on our part to drive her to town to go to a certain office and we’d have to get the interview and come back and after lunch we would have to go back again. So Nancy got on the pension just by dint of sheer energy on our part.
Anyhow that phenomenon was extraordinary. There were the isolated persons, like Aunty Helen. Aunty Helen must have been the first person I remember coming to knock on the front door and wanting a sandwich. She was so bloody timid and very unsure of herself altogether, but she arrived. So the people who were coming, were coming quite sporadically. That group that was coming began, but then there were hordes of groups. I can’t quite remember when it was that Abbè Pierre came, and Mark Raper had a good friend in the person of Ingrid Sandberg, who was a Swedish young woman who came and helped out.
Because she was looking hard at the whole question of the Block, I remember her coming in asking, ‘could she perhaps try to check out who were all the owners of the Block?’ That is where she found that most of these houses had been bought up by IBK. I think that is a much later date. We are talking about these people who were coming in and finding a level somewhere in the Presbytery precincts.
So when was this roughly? What years?
Father Kennedy: Well we arrived in December 1971 and it took many, many months to cajole Aboriginal people to come and accept accommodation. I am not quite sure how the thing developed and what the pressures were. I do remember when Abbè Pierre came, I felt confident enough to bring him down. He was in his cassock. He came out from France and I just wanted him to meet up with people like ‘Juke Box’. Now there was no way in which I would have been confident enough, to bring him− a stranger − into one of the houses in Louis Street, but we did, and he enjoyed talking to them. He came back with the suggestion that there should be something to do. The government should require something like doing up old cars, for instance, was the prerogative of Aboriginal people so there should be an industry that was handed over to Aboriginal people. He had that sort of insight that comes from the knowledge of poor people everywhere. I think we should really have tried to work on that in those days. The theory is something that still ought to be recommended. I have always felt that there were things like boomerangs and things like that that should be allocated to Aboriginal people and they should have the right to own those.
They are very good at mechanics, aren’t they?
Father Kennedy: Yes. Anyhow I suppose as time went on, it was more and more learning the ways of the Aboriginal people and they were filling up the Block. It was just tragedy because the moment that they started building up numbers, then the forces against them started operating. I mean I remember when we had something like eighteen paddy wagons that would be operating outside the Empress Hotel every Thursday and Friday night. It was then of course that these huge crowds of Aboriginal people would be fighting out of the hotel at ten o’clock at night and they would be just shoved into the paddy wagons. I always remember Glady. Glady was a young mother then, Glady Haynes, and she was being pushed into the paddy wagon and she would go in on a Friday night until Monday morning. Then she would come out and she’d have to go up before the Magistrate. Sally and Brenda and the older kids were home screaming waiting for their mother to come home on Friday night. It was just extraordinary. I mean, it wasn’t organised so that the kids would be informed, so it was a most extraordinary experience.
There was the police, they were the main oppressor.
Father Kennedy: Well they were, yes. I can never remember the divisions, but this particular division was a fearful division, Newtown 21.
So they would have sent those paddy wagons? They would have organised those paddy wagons outside the hotels. What about the housing situation? Was the Block full of Aboriginal houses then? Aboriginal tenants?
Father Kennedy: Well as I say, Ingrid Sandberg found that it had already been bought up by IBK and they were all empty so all the Aboriginal people were just squatting. They were regarded as ‘empties’. That was another word that had come into existence. Aboriginal people lived in ‘empties’. There was no support whatsoever so the Block kept filling up. The actual houses had been vacated by people paying enormous rents, I suppose, until the owners could not get rent any more so IBK bought up this place.
There were probably no jobs, of course.
Father Kennedy: Oh no, there were no jobs. There were a hell of a lot more jobs at that time available, theoretically. I remember a few celebrated cases where Roy from Darlington Point and I think Claudie Murray also wanted employment from a big abattoir.
Father Kennedy: Normy would have been a bit later. They reported this bastard to a new commissioner who was to do with racism and we won that case. It was very difficult because as you know, Aborigines don’t want necessarily to fight the cases. It is one thing to fight the case too, theoretically, but it is another thing to have to face up to all these bastards.
That was another whole thing, wasn’t it, the court scene? With the paddy wagon too, remember when you had the vigilante with the cameras. I didn’t hear you mention that.
Father Kennedy: I am just not sure how the whole thing developed.
I wonder, did you want to say anything more about your relationships with the people, some of whom would have come from the Block, or shall we leave it at that.
Father Kennedy: Well I developed a very good relationship, I think, with most of them now coming from the Block. Aunty Martha Beckett certainly lived in Caroline Street, across the road in one of the low numbers. She was an extraordinary woman.
Did you sometimes go down the Block to see people?
Father Kennedy: Oh yes, I did.
What were the conditions in the houses then?
Father Kennedy: We haven’t even started looking at the question of the government doing them up, you know. First of all, there is this period in which they were all ‘empties’. 21 Division would come in and there would be a small group of Aborigines in the houses in, say, Louis Street, and all these huge policemen would come in and go upstairs and just drag them down. So Alby Kyle, from Bundaberg, was being dragged down by the hair of his head, out of his bed. I think Kit can tell you all that. You see, Kit was only a little kid in short pants and he was there. He was absconding from one of the homes. So it was always a question of, no one having an entitlement. Everyone was just so scared just even to be around, you know.
You mean the non-Aboriginal people?
Father Kennedy: Yes. So there was that phase when this huge number. I just can’t fuse the two moments when we were trying to find occupation for people and at the same time give them confidence, I suppose.
So did you meet any particular characters there, outstanding characters?
Father Kennedy: Oh there were many of them. They have all died, I suppose. Someone like Alby Kyle was the right kind of Koori. The Kyle family is a famous family. I mean they are very reputable fighters for justice in Queensland. Those sort of people are quite extraordinary. That is when the Watsons turned up and would often come and stay, the whole family --- Lenny, Maureen and Lilla. They were very encouraging.
Was Aunty Polly there?
Father Kennedy: Aunty Polly was there, I think, in those early days.
It is very valuable to sit and hear accounts of those early days because some people’s memories are limited, very limited.
Father Kennedy: See, we got a group together at the Presbytery to decide what we should do about the Block. Bob Bellear led the whole the story. He led this group marching down to the Block with brooms and buckets. So we were having vast numbers living in the Presbytery and suddenly, we asked them all to move down to the Block, so that was a political act.
Because the government wasn’t doing anything. When did that happen? They did up the Block didn’t they, the Council?
Father Kennedy: No, it wasn’t the Council. Vic Hall was instrumental in organising the Aboriginal Housing Company, so they took on the role of doing up the Block.
Was the land given to them then?
Father Kennedy: It was.
Father Kennedy: Yes. Bob kept it there. There was an attempt by the government to take back the deeds but Bob kept the deeds.
Weren’t you also prohibited from keeping them in the vestry by the council?
Father Kennedy: Yes. These two things seem to synchronise. Jimmy Freeman was getting very scared because there were these Council regulations coming through every week, and I was standing with them. I did assure Freeman that as soon as we could, we’d organise all the people from the hall to take over the Block by way of a political act.
Jimmy Freeman was the archbishop?
Father Kennedy: Yes.
Was that the pressure that was then put on the government to them, because they just took it over?
Father Kennedy: Well, Whitlam right from the start was pretty good. It was right at the very start before he’d even allocated ministers, when Barnard was his off-sider, you know. It was part of the very start of the Whitlam government. The first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was quite good.
So they were given the land and the houses were done up.
Father Kennedy: Yes. We are talking about 1971 to 1981. By 1981, when that ABC programme was shown, Broken Covenant, it showed all the houses quite neat. They were maintained quite well for the next few years. So the phenomenon of drugs happened later and it happened with enormous force.
Mum Shirl was like a vigilante, she had a group that forced them out of the area, the drug traffickers.
Father Kennedy: It is hard to say how effective she was because Diane died.
Thanks, Ted. Is there anything else you want to say?
Father Kennedy: Not really. Thanks, Pat.
Interviewer: Sr Pat Ormesher