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Aboriginal Australian activist, Barbara Cummings (1948-2019), was in a children’s home as a child.

Barbara Cummings, a proud Nangioeri woman, was born at the Bagot Aboriginal Reserve in Darwin, Northern Territory. The Bagot Reserve was set up in 1938 after the Kahlin Compound (founded in 1913 by the NT Protector of Aborigines, Baldwin Spencer, to separate and control the Indigenous population) was destroyed in the 1937 cyclone.

As her mother, Nellie, was separated from her parents and taken to Bagot, so Barbara was removed from her mother and taken to live in the Retta Dixon Children’s Home. The Retta Dixon Home, built in 1946, was on the same site as the Bagot Reserve and run by the Aborigines Inland Mission (AIM) at Darwin.

‘The aim of the Aborigines Inland Mission at Darwin is to care for their half-caste wards and train them to become worthy and responsible citizens. The Hostel is intended to be a congenial home for young women employed in Darwin where they will receive advice and guidance. At present there are 48 children, two mothers and six single women in the institution’ (Cummings).

 Conditions for children in Retta Dixon were harsh.

I got terrible thrashings. We all did”, [Barbara Cummings] told the Northern Territory News last week, recalling leather belts and canes (Pemberton).

In the 1950s “a reforming senior Darwin official” tried to stop the severe corporal punishment of children at Retta Dixon, but was overruled by the federal Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck.

In 1990, Barbara Cummings published Take This Child, an account of her time at Retta Dixon and the harsh treatment received by children there. Exposing her childhood meant Barbara was pivotal in the larger exposition of the Stolen Generations exemplified in the 1997 Bringing them Home Report.

Barbara Cummings went on to qualify as a social worker and worked with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Northern Territory Government. She was instrumental in establishing the (now defunct) Karu Aboriginal Child Care Agency in Darwin.

In 1991 Barbara Cummings received the Aboriginal of the Year Award.

References:

George, Karen and George, Gary. “Bagot Aboriginal Reserve (1938 – 1978?).” Find & Connect, 2019. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/nt/biogs/YE00306b.htm

Heaney, Chelsea. “Stolen Generations member Barbara Cummings remembered as trailblazer in Aboriginal Affairs.” ABC News, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-29/barbara-cummings-dies-darwin-stolen-generation-tributes/11558196

 “Kahlin Compound (1913 – 1939).” Find & Connect, 2020. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00032

 Kovacic, Leonarda and Lemon, Barbara. “Cummings, Barbara (c. 1948-2019).” Australian Women’s Register, 2019. https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1247b.htm

Pemberton, Greg. “The price Aboriginal children paid at Retta Dixon.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 2014. https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-price-aboriginal-children-paid-at-retta-dixon-20140926-10mb2z.html

 “Retta Dixon Home (1946 – 1982).” Find & Connect, 2021. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00023

Image available here.