By Reginald Smith


Australia, the land down under, has only very recently been on Americans’ radars as a place to travel or even live. Starting with visits by Army soldiers in World War II, it increased in the American consciousness through time culminating with the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now it is a frequent destination for travel or even work now that its economy is benefiting due to the huge mineral boom driven by Chinese demand. As far as Black expatriates goes, it is an even more recent development for several reasons.

First, Australia’s imported cheap labor typically came from China or the nearby South Pacific islands such as New Guinea. Amongst the major Commonwealth countries of the UK and Canada it alone has never had a major Black migration from Africa or the West Indies. In addition, up until the 1960s and 1970s Whites Only laws restricting immigration except in the case of marriage also kept out many persons who may have otherwise immigrated there. Now these restrictions are lifted and many peoples from large amounts of Asians to Persians, Lebanese, and Zimbabweans now call Australia home. Also, let’s admit—it is far out and not the first choice for many immigrants.

In July and September of 1966, Ebony magazine published a two part feature by its investigative journalist Era Bell Thompson on Australia and its White Only policy, “Australia: Its White Policy and the Negro”. It was an interesting and nuanced article of his travel there spanning the experience of White Australians, Black immigrants, and the local Aboriginal population. Traveling all over the country from the large cities of Sydney to smaller Brisbane and miniscule Alice Springs, Era paints a portrait of Blacks in Australia past and present. The first Black to his knowledge that came to Australia was a Jamaican named ‘Black Caesar’ who arrived on a convict vessel in the 1770s. Soon after the western discovery of Australia by British explorer James Cook, Britain designated Australia as a penal colony and many of its first inhabitants were the ‘undesirables’ of the British Empire. Later came a Black named Douglas Pitt the Elder or “The Black Pirate” who settled on Thursday Island, married an Aboriginal, and made a small fortune with a pearling fleet (a pearl harvesting operation). Another Black named “Yankee Ned” Morresby had a family on the island when Thompson visited in 1966. “Black Al” Simons who hailed from Alabama settled in the Outback during the Australian gold rush of the late 19th century and was fondly remembered by local Aborigines.

The Blacks that lived in Australia as of 1966 typically fell into one of two categories. First there were some men, and it seems more women, that had married Australians and migrated as spouses. Second, there were the children of White or Aboriginal Australians and Black soldiers during World War II. Interestingly there was no huge friction caused by this dating similar to that which existed in the US at the time. However, unless they had gotten married, the soldiers left so their children grew up primarily as Australians and integrated into the population. At the time there had also been an increasing number of Blacks visiting as the major jazz and R&B stars performed in Australia.

Jamaican importer Rupert Montague with his wife Stephanie and Faith Morris.

At the time of the article, an Australian government official estimated there were maybe 100 Black citizens in Australia. These were almost all through marriage. This compares with about 3,000 American immigrants overall in1965. Amongst the people Thompson met were Rupert Montague, a Jamaican importer who had married an Australian librarian he met in London. Rupert was happy to say he was thoroughly accepted by his in-laws. He also met beauty Faith Morris who had married an Australian she had met while being a stewardess on BOAC (the British Overseas Airway Corporation, a state owned British airline at the time) and Leslie Uggams, the young singer whose marriage was one of the leading photos for the article and later the topic of its own article in the May 1967 issue (“Why I married an Australian”).

Ronne Arnold choreographing a routine with dancers at the Chequers Club

In entertainment was Ronne Arnold, a choreographer at the Chequers Club which specialized in American entertainment (and is where Leslie Uggams met her husband) and the musical conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Dean Dixon who was starting his third season in 1966 doing something in Australia he had been unable to achieve in the States. In a later issue of Jet in 1986, a Sharon Nash is mentioned as going to Sydney to become an anchorwoman. She had been a former Jet beauty and graduated from North Texas State University.

Wedding photo of singer Leslie Uggams to Australian Graham Pratt • Dean Dixon, musical conductor Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Another famous temporary expat not mentioned in the article, since he had not arrived, was the future world famous pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, author of the phenomenal bestseller Gifted Hands. Ben Carson had gone to Australia to work at a teaching hospital. He reported that he loved the country and became close with the Seventh Day Adventists congregation there which embraced his family. His first son was also born there.

Ben Carson came at a fortunate time as the Whites Only laws Ebony reported on were repealed in 1968. However, one thing that ties the narratives of Thompson and Carson is their positive impression of the Australian people who they said were warm and welcoming. They did not feel hampered by racial issues there, especially Thompson who was coming from an America just fresh off the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They said Australians also had an overall positive image of American Blacks and made many friends to the extent they had an overall warm feeling of the country. So well written was Thompson’s articles on Australia, several Australians included a newspaper editor wrote Ebony to thank him for his comprehensive coverage.

There were serious problems in Australia though in that the Aborigines suffered under a racial scheme or segregation and reservations. Thompson at the time wonders if the reception he receives is so good because he is a foreigner. He heavily covered the Aborigines, including pictures of their most famous people and describing their history and plight in Ebony. He remarked that they seemed to feel an association with Black in America as he saw children in the Outback singing Negro spirituals and asking many questions about what it was like in the US. A letter writer to Ebony who was a teacher in Australia and New Zealand comments on how he often used Ebony and Jet when teaching Aboriginal students. Many of the Aborigines face similar issues today such as education and health disparities and a struggle for economic empowerment. They are more protected under Australian law which had changes similar to the American Civil Rights movement but many remain on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Today in Australia, there are many more Black immigrants for various reasons. There are many coming for school from countries such as Mauritius, Zimbabwe, or South Africa. There were about 192,000 immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa (many of which are White or Black South Africans) but they make up less than 1% of the population of 20 million. There are increasing numbers, however, coming for work, travel, or adventure. Who knows, maybe Down Under is the next on my travel list.

Photo credits: Rupert Montague, Faith Morris, Ronne Arnold and Leslie Uggams photos courtesy of Jet Magazine’s two part article “Australia: Its White Policy and the Negro” part 1part 2 • Dean Dixon sourced from Wikimedia – US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div, Carl Van Vechten Collection.

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