WARNING: This story contains the name of Aboriginal people who are now deceased.
A NEW interpretive artwork installed at Weld Square has been unveiled, revealing the little-known story of the Coolbaroo League Social Club.
Coolbaroo was a social club for Aboriginal people, operating at a time they’d been banned from entering the city without a “native pass” by the state’s chief protector of Aborigines, AO Neville. The club operated in several locations, but its most familiar was on Newcastle Street, right on the border of the forbidden zone.
Vincent deputy mayor Ros Harley opened the new artwork.
“It was a very difficult time when Aboriginal people were essentially excluded from the economic and social benefits of being able to move freely in the city,” said Cr Harley, inaugural chair of the city’s new Reconciliation Action Plan group.
“When people talk about ‘can’t you move on and forget it’, there are still people alive today who were affected by that restricted area… think about the economic impact of that, the hurdles people faced.”
Weld Square was once a wetland where Aboriginal people camped, but it gained renewed significance in the 1900s as its southern edge bordered Newcastle Street and the prohibited era.
The Coolbarooo League formed in 1946 to improve civil rights for Indigenous people, as access to health and education was extremely limited. The name means magpie, and was chosen because it signified black and white coming together.
Activist Helena Clarke was one of the founders, setting out to scrap the prohibited area laws along with elders Thomas Bropho, Bertha Isaacs and Bill Bodney.
Along with politics, the League had its social side too, and became an important focal point for Aboriginal people to meet and socialise.
A Daily News headline from March 18, 1947 reported “Aborigines, Half-Castes Have Weekly Dance, Social”.
The article says “an average of 300 aborigines and half-castes attend a weekly dance and social at East Perth Pensioners’ Hall”.
Vincent library’s local historian Julie Davidson’s study of the era says events were family oriented and “people were encouraged to perform and they offered a safe, creative and entertaining environment, with no alcohol allowed”.
“Beauty competitions became part of their calendar, with the first Miss Coolbaroo crowned in December 1947. White people could attend by invitation only.”
It was mostly trouble free, but a big fight at a dance spilled onto the nearby railway line and the league was barred from the East Perth Pensioners Hall.
By this time Helena Clarke had returned to Port Headland for her family, but some original members formed the New Coolbaroo Club in 1950 at the Braille Hall on the corner of Newcastle and Stirling Streets. The weekly dances continued. They held annual balls in larger venues like the Blue Room.
Nat King Cole and the Harlem Globe Trotters visited, and in 1956 they invited whites to their dance at Manchester Unity Hall on William Street.
“NATIVES END BAN, DANCE ATTENDED BY WHITES” the May 12, 1956 edition of the Mirror screamed in all-caps.
The club closed down in 1960 when key member Ronnie Kickett died aged 29, though its membership echoed through later organisations, and the Aboriginal Health Council of WA traces its roots back to people organising the weekly dances on Newcastle Street.
The interactive pillar designed by Jenny Dawson and Noongar artist Sandra Hill was installed for this year’s Naidoc Week.
Along with images of key figures, the pillar is emblazoned with one of the “native passes,” and accompanying oral stories are available with a button press.
by DAVID BELL