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A friend recently blogged about a book for young adults titled Freedom Ride, so it seems only proper to blog myself about the Freedom Ride that it’s referring to. And given that the Freedom Ride started at Sydney University, which is located on 128 acres of the Grose Farm site, this also follows neatly from my previous blog about ‘Grose’s Hill’.

In 1854 Edmund Blackett was appointed architect for the university, with James Barnet his Clerk of Works. Work began on the main building in 1855, and lessons commenced in the unfinished building in 1857.

The two storey sandstone building features high quality carved Gothic Revival style decorative details and tracery, coats of arms and medallions. The sandstone is thought to originate from Pyrmont but it is possible that quarrying occurred in front of the east range forming the terrace. The roofs are clad with Welsh Slate. The east range largely retains its original interiors with fine carved cedar joinery (also Gothic Revival in style), massive timber staircases, marble and timber floors and plastered walls. Externally the Great Hall is crenellated with a corner turret to the north east. The eastern gable has central stained glass window with carved tracery, as does the western facade.[i]

Outside that main building 110 years later, on 12 February 1965, 29 students boarded a bus that travelled to Orange, Wellington, Dubbo, Gulargambone, Walgett, Collarenebri, Moree, Boggabilla, Goodiwindi, Warwick, Tenterfield, Inverell, back to Moree, Glen Innes, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Bowraville, Kempsey, Taree and Newcastle. The bus had a banner along its side saying ‘Student Action for Aborigines’,[ii]and it became known as the Freedom Ride. In the two weeks of the tour the students surveyed people on the stations, reserves and shanty towns along the way about health, housing, racism, education.

Wellington was the first stop on the Freedom Ride. Ann Curthoys and others went to the settlement outside the town.

We got a tremendous shock. We really had no idea until this moment what it was we were protesting about. Here it was, the utmost poverty in our well-off First World industrialised country.[iii]

She started to write a diary. On that first night she wrote:

Interviewed about ten tin shacks of people. Most of us found the questionnaires unsuitable. Houses of tin, mud floors, very over-crowded, kids had eye diseases, had to cart water (very unhealthy) from river. People fairly easy to talk to, kids quite friendly. General picture of extreme poverty but not a great deal of social discrimination.[iv]

Despite that last statement, the combined surveys showed that:

When asked for examples of discrimination, the answers included ‘up to twelve months ago not allowed in pubs’, ‘Courthouse Hotel’, ‘hotels, shops’, ‘employment’, ‘putting them out of town’ and ‘won’t let them live in town even if can afford [it]’.[v]

They filmed an Aboriginal man going into the Courthouse Hotel – he is served, but possibly only because of the students’ presence. Then Charles Perkins is sent into the same hotel, ‘and there was some discussion between the barmaid and the publican before they served him’.[vi]

This was the pattern for the tour. Surveys, feeling out the town’s reactions, then sometimes demonstrations – outside segregated swimming pools and picture theatres, pubs and cafes. They received increasing levels of local, national and international attention and burst the bubble of apathy that surrounded the treatment of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people in many of the towns visited gained strength from the students’ visit, forming groups to maintain the momentum that had been started. Although criticised at the time for ‘just stirring up trouble’, many of the students on the bus returned to the towns again and again, to assist in particular demonstrations, forming strong bonds with the Aboriginal inhabitants of the towns.

[i]http://www.facilities.usyd.edu.au/afm/reports/heritagesection170-r01.cfm?pkID=4726003Section 170 Register Report: 4726003: MAIN QUAD / EAST RANGE AND GREAT HALL

[ii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002.

[iii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p71

[iv]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[v]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[vi]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p73