Inspiring South Australian women: Ruby Hammond

Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

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National Reconciliation Week 2021

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) - held annually from 27 May to 3 June - is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.

This year's NRW theme, More than a word. Reconciliation takes action, urges us to move towards a braver and more impactful reconciliation movement.

In the article below, we share some insights into just one of many South Australian women who proudly championed reconciliation all their life, seeking to bridge differences by sharing their culture at every opportunity.

Throughout the state's history, South Australia, and indeed Adelaide itself, has been home to truly inspirational women - trailblazers across politics, social reform, the arts and so much more.

As a tribute to these pioneers, historian Carolyn Collins and journalist Roy Eccleston penned the book Trailblazers - shining a light on the lives of 100 extraordinary South Australian women.

Among them is Ruby Florence Hammond (1936 - 1993), Aboriginal activist and public servant. Hammond, was described as 'a cheerful optimist' who never lost sight of her dream 'for all of us to live together and love the land'.

In this extract from Trailblazers, learn about Ruby Hammond's journey on exploring her Aboriginality, and her endless fight for equality for Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal activist and public servant (1936–1993)

Ruby hammond 1
photo-icon Image: Courtesy of the Advertiser Library

Ruby Hammond, trailblazing advocate for Aboriginal rights

Ruby Hammond grew up in the 1940s under an apartheid system, whereby Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in institutions. It was not until much later that she understood that she had been safeguarded, to some degree, by a certificate issued when she was just five that granted her limited exemption from the provisions of the Aborigines Act 1934−1939. Hammond deeply resented this document.

Later, after moving to Adelaide, meeting urban Aboriginal people, and exploring her own Aboriginality with her mother’s family in northern South Australia, Hammond came to understand how the deep-seated historical causes and institutionalised nature of racism impacted on every issue facing Aboriginal people.

The turning point in her life came during a tumultuous personal period when her first marriage was ending, her mother was dying and Hammond herself was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After her release from hospital, she decided to travel to Marree to seek out her mother’s family and explore her own Aboriginality.

 She also met cultural geographer Fay Gale, who in turn introduced her to Gladys Elphick, who was trying to put together a group of Aboriginal women in Adelaide to assist Indigenous people to help themselves.

It was the start of a busy new chapter in Hammond’s life. She joined Elphick, Lois (Lowitja) O’Donoghue, Faith Thomas and others to form the Council of Aboriginal Women, the first organisation of its type in Australia, and was later employed as a social worker.

The council campaigned strongly for the ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum. Hammond was hugely heartened by the results, which saw almost 91 per cent of Australians vote to amend the constitution to allow the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.

The campaign brought Hammond to wider notice. In 1972, she was one of nine South Australians invited to the first meeting of Aboriginal representatives in Canberra. In the 1970s, she participated in many international forums on behalf of Aboriginal people, including delegations to China and the Soviet Union. She served on the steering committee of the National Women’s Consultative Committee, the inaugural Aboriginal Arts Board and on the national advisory board for International Women’s Year.

Hammond was also a founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) in Adelaide, working first as a field officer and later becoming executive director. In 1988, following the resignation of Hawke government minister Mick Young, she unsuccessfully contested the Port Adelaide by-election, standing for the Independent Aboriginal Cultural Party.

In 1989, she was appointed head of the South Australian Aboriginal Issues Unit of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Later, as an advisor to the South Australian Department of Arts and Cultural Heritage, she helped to organise an exhibition to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the referendum. Among the exhibits was her despised Certificate of Exemption.

Ruby hammond
photo-icon Courtesy of the Advertiser Library

Celebrating her BA in Aboriginal Affairs Administration, 1986.

The day before the opening, in May 1992, Hammond was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later that year, she was presented with the Australian Public Service Medal by then Governor Dame Roma Mitchell.

Ruby Hammond died on 16 April 1993. The following month she was posthumously awarded the Equal Opportunity Achievement Award. A new electorate was also named in her honour.

Trailblazers 100 inspiring South Australian women by Carolyn Collins, Roy Eccleston

This is an edited extract from Trailblazers: 100 Inspiring South Australian Women by Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston, published by Wakefield Press