Pools are not just places of pleasure; many times they have been the scene of protests and demonstrations. As the editors of Modern Times, The untold story of modernism in Australia state: “As a relatively new kind of social gathering place the pool emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as a unique arena that amplified political and social attitudes.”
The public pool was also the place where race relations were played out particularly during the 1950s and early 60s when some Australian country towns barred Aboriginals from using the local pool. One of the most famous protests was in 1965 when Charlie Perkins and his fellow Freedom Riders picketed the Moree Artesian Baths in north-west NSW.
Inspired by the US Freedom Rides, the group of 33 university students travelled to Moree and other NSW country towns to draw attention to the discrimination and inequalities Aboriginal people faced. In particular the Freedom Riders highlighted the banning of Aborigines from local amenities such as clubs, pubs, picture theatres and pools.
In the 1993 Rachel Perkins-film about her father and the Freedom Ride, Moree-local Lyall Munro jnr remembers how the black children could only go in the pool during school swimming sessions.
“We were all lined up and scrubbed and washed and checked for lice before we could go in the pool,” says Lyall. “And then we were only allowed in a corner section and when school finished at 3pm we had to get out.”
To draw attention to this inequality the Freedom Riders arrived at Moree Pool on 17 February with a group of Aboriginal children. Ann Curthoys, author of Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider Remembers says they were admitted in order to avoid a confrontation. “We later left town, believing that council management had agreed to desegregate the pool,” she says.
When they got word the council hadn’t followed through with rescinding the ban, they headed back to Moree. On the way they picked up some Aboriginal kids from the mission. Lyall Munro jnr was one of those kids. He remembers the experience as one of the most exciting days of his life. Even at the age of 10 he says he had a sense that he was taking part in something historic.
“On the way we sang songs of the time, like Little Patti’s ‘Stomping at Maroubra’,” he says.
With the support of local Bob Brown, who had been agitating to over-turn the ban for some time, this time the Freedom Riders were successful. Ann Curthoys remembers an increasingly tense atmosphere with the council agreeing to abolish the regulation if the students promised to leave town immediately.
Sydney University recently held an exhibition on art and activism connected to the Freedom Ride. One of the artworks featured in the exhibition was Robert Campbell jnr’s 1986 painting ‘Barred from the Baths’. Robert Campbell states:
“I am painting to show people – Aboriginal people, and even the whites – what truths took place in my lifetime: for example, being fenced off at the pictures; the dog tag system. I am telling stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people, tribal and others, through my life.”
When we visited the Moree Artesian Complex in 2009 we met a number of Aboriginal people enjoying the mineral-rich healing waters. Deanna Boney and Lesley Barrow soak in the centre’s hot spas or swim in the 50-metre pool most afternoons. “The water’s good for pains, good for everything, and it helps you sleep well at night,” they say.
Musician Gene Knox also usually visits each day. “I love the water; it’s so relaxing,” he says, as he chats to local identity Ron O’Mullane, known as the bard of the baths for his poems about his much-loved pool.
We can thank Charlie Perkins and his fellow Freedom Riders that times have changed.