SISTERS IN ARMS: Retired teachers Neola Savage and Juliri Ingra says black and white people need to work together.
SISTERS IN ARMS: Retired teachers Neola Savage and Juliri Ingra says black and white people need to work together. Matt Taylor GLA060318

They were bullied and excluded but their message is love

JACQUI Johnson was a 50-year-old black woman with six children and a grade four education when she decided "if the old fellas could do it" she could too.

It was in the 1960s when Jacqui beat the odds and earned herself a university degree. In doing so, she paved the way for another seven members of her family to graduate from Deakin University with a Bachelor of Education.

Two of her sisters, Neola Savage and Juliri Ingra spoke with The Observer about their lives as Aboriginal women, then and now.

When Juliri's granddaughter once asked her if she'd been bullied at school, history knows her answer.

"If you can be called names, terrible names to do with your appearance, then yes, but don't worry we fought our way back. Our young life, we were just little back kids. We were proud of it but we knew we were different," she said.

The expectation for a young Aboriginal girl in Gladstone in the 1950s was to get a good education and get a job. Juliri finished her junior certificate but she said she couldn't find a job in Gladstone.

"We were smart, we did well at school but the only local jobs were babysitting for the local solicitor up the road, housework and picking cotton but I knew I had something better," she said.

In 1962 Juliri sat for the Post Master General's exam and out of 700 applicants she had the highest mark.

It was a life-changing moment for a young woman looking for more out of life and she left home to live in Brisbane.

"I was in the first intake of telephonists," she said.

"I was a city girl then, it was wonderful but I was very shy, especially of what I looked like... we only mixed with Aboriginal people.

"But we went to dances, blacks and whites, we loved it. They were the heady days of the 1960s.

"The Beatles were in and we gradually got confident ... we had all the city clothes, dressing up, styling up, we thought we were just it."

In those days there was no opportunity for a young Indigenous woman to go to university.

The sisters said they never thought about it, it just wasn't on their radar.

Then the Australian Government introduced programs for Aboriginal Australians and Deakin University in Victoria took up the opportunity.

"There were 14 went from Gladstone, eight in our family. We all got degrees at 50," Neola said.

"But it was hard to get a teaching job here because I was an activist, I still am.

"I put my name down but I was never called up."

Eventually, in 2004, Neola found a teaching job at Woorabinda where she stayed for seven years.

"I loved it. They were the best years of my life. We weren't outsiders, we were part of the community."

She said Indigenous children today are still born into a very white world.

"You look in the papers and it's all white people, all the teachers are white, where are the role models," Juliri asked.

"We encourage our kids to get up and do things, don't be afraid of having their say.

"Don't be ashamed of who you are... a word our kids use is shame, we have to get rid of that.

"We wouldn't go into places because we were ashamed and a lot of (white) people didn't want black people in their house."

Juliri recalled as a child being able to go to her white friend's house to play but she wasn't allowed inside.

"We were invited to a party once and when everyone went upstairs to cut the cake they told us we couldn't go upstairs," she said.

"It was OK to be outside but not inside.

"The Church of Christ people took us into their house, but they were all."

Though they were rejected and looked down on, there's not a mark of bitterness in any of the sister's voices.

They said to truly close the gap, there needed to be good communication with the right people.

"From my point of view, black and white have got to work together," Neola said.

"I've been in so many communities where we've been trying to do it on our own but we can't.

"We need these white fellas to help us. We've been trying for years but you need the right people."

Juliri agreed.

"We need to work together but in a proper way, not just say 'we'll do that for you'. Like these big companies that say we'll do this and we'll do that and then they forget about us after it's signed off," she said.

"Locally we could do a lot if the people just recognise there are problems in our community. How do the elders have a say?

"But we count our blessings every day.

"We can do things. United we stand and divided we fall. We can close the gap in our own way with what we do every day... just love one another."

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