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FEATURED AUSTRALIA HISTORY: Melbourne’s Fitzroy hides a past as a hub for the Aboriginal civil rights movement

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#AceNewsDesk – When Aunty Denise McGuinness looks up and down Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, she sees her community’s history everywhere: ” Fitzroy’s so significant to Aboriginal people … if you come from Perth, anywhere, you come straight to Fitzroy,” she says.

Denise McGuinness smiles as she stands in a garden on a rainy day, dressed in a black puffer jacket.
Denise McGuinness wants more Melburnians to discover the Aboriginal history of Fitzroy.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

The inner-Melbourne suburb is now dominated by expensive houses, trendy bars and designer homewares, in recent years garnering a reputation as a hipster haven.

But it’s still home to the large public flats where Ms McGuinness lived as a girl.

Shop fronts line Gertrude Street, viewed under cloudy grey skies.
Fitzroy’s recent gentrification has transformed Gertrude Street, but a new project is bringing its history back into focus.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Fitzroy and the surrounding suburbs were a meeting place for Aboriginal people who’d left behind restrictive lives on missions or emerged from state institutions, searching for family links the government had tried so hard to sever.

“We were discriminated against, there was only one pub that would let us drink, and that was the Builders Arms,” Ms McGuinness recalls.

The Builders Arms Hotel, photographed under grey skies from across the road.
Several stories shared in the project involve life-changing meetings at the Builders Arms Hotel.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

Now, the stories of laughter, tears and powerful civil rights victories born on this part of Wurundjeri land are free for all to hear, through a truth-telling phone app.

Named Yalinguth, after the Woi Wurrung word for “yesterday”, the app follows your GPS location, producing rich audio stories that reveal the recent history of the land you’re walking on.

An artistic display of a street map, with a white drop indicating the user's location and large bubbles to mark story zones.
A map marked by bubbles invites the user to step into the stories of elders.(Supplied)none

Wander past the Builders Arms Hotel, and Uncle Jack Charles comes through the headphones, telling you how he discovered Melbourne’s Indigenous community inside as a teenager.

Stroll down to Atherton Gardens, and the late Uncle Archie Roach’s haunting lyrics and story invites you to reflect on the cruel cost of the Stolen Generations.

Further down, by the police station on Condell Street, elders share their memories of racist treatment by the justice system.

Bobby Nicholls, a multi-clan traditional owner with Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and Wotjobaluk connections, says the project is a powerful way of ensuring the legacy of civil rights leaders including Sir Doug Nicholls, William Cooper and Jack Patten are more widely known.

“They came into Melbourne to achieve a lot of things, and one of those things was to ensure that Aboriginal people had equal rights,” he says.

Bobby Nicholls smiles as he stands in a park, dressed in a warm checked jacket on a rainy day.
Bobby Nicholls says his community is still fighting for access to the culturally appropriate services it needs.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

It was on Gertrude Street that the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service was opened in 1973, offering a safe space in an era when stories of racist treatment in health services were common.

A white building striped in black, yellow and red is viewed from across the street.
The health service was one of several community-run Aboriginal organisations that emerged in the 1970s.(ABC News)none

“[In Echuca], they used to have the expectant mothers to be out on the verandah of the maternity hospital, so they weren’t taken into the wards like non-Aboriginal people,” Mr Nicholls says.

Ms McGuinness spent two decades working in the community-controlled service, which ran on little more than community passion in the early years.

Men and woman stand outside a black, yellow and red coloured building. A sign reads 'KOORI HEALTH NOT GUBBAWEALTH'.
The creation of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service gave Indigenous people an option that wasn’t run by white Australia.(Supplied: Aunty Denise McGuinness)none

“Back in those days, we didn’t need the funding that we rely upon now,” the Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman says.

“We worked at the health centre … three months without a wage, three to six months.

“We still delivered the service.”

Ms McGuinness hopes those who take a walk through the stories offered by elders will gain a deeper appreciation of the struggles her community has endured.

“Get a different understanding and learn the struggles back then,” she says.

A black, yellow and red sticker with an eagle reads 'Yalinguth', on a wet Melbourne footpath.
The app offers an audio tour of the streets around Fitzroy, revealing the rich Aboriginal history of the area.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

Gunaikurnai and Kooma-kunja artist BJ Braybon gathered many of his elders’ stories for the app.

He feels young Indigenous people taking in the stories will find themselves changed.

“It’ll change the young people because it will help them to understand about their elders’ history,” he says.

BJ Braybon smiles, standing in a park on a rainy day, dressed in a black beanie and puffer jacket.
BJ Braybon contributed to the artwork featured on the app.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

Yorta Yorta man Jason Tamiru, who helped formally launch the Yalinguth app this week, says the trove of elders’ stories collected on the app represents a chance to become better informed.

“History’s shaped us all, good and bad,” he says.

Jason Tamiru smiles, wearing a black hoodie and yellow beanie.
Jason Tamiru says the audio app respects the oral history traditions of Aboriginal communities.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)none

“Outside of our own community some people have made judgement of us and that judgement is incorrect and there’s been a lot of books, lot of stories and those stories haven’t been always positive.

“You want to hear the truth, you want to hear from the right people.

“Engaging with the app, you’re going to engage with a lot of elders, a lot of people that hold stories and those stories are important.”

You can find out more about the Yalinguth project on its website.

#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: July.31: 2022:

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