Mural honours pioneer teacher

State education minister Sue Ellery unveils the May O’Brien mural by JD Penangke and Hope Perth.

THE first Aboriginal woman employed as a teacher in WA was honoured at Mount Hawthorn Primary School this week.

A classroom block was renamed the May O’Brien Building and a mural unveiled to commemorate her 10 years at the school.

Mrs O’Brien (nee Miller) was born into the traditional life of the Wongatha people at Laverton, but at age five was removed to the Mount Margaret Aboriginal Mission.

She later attended Perth Girls School in East Perth and went on to receive her teachers certificate around 1953. She went back to teach at Mount Margaret and later received full certification. She was the first Aboriginal woman to gain a tertiary graduation.

Mrs O’Brien came to Mount Hawthorn Primary School in 1961 to teach children of all races, doing a 10 year stint before moving on to be state superintendent of Aboriginal education. 

She studied international programs in the USA and Canada to bring back methods of enabling Aboriginal people to keep their cultures alive while undertaking mainstream education, and also contributed to WA’s first report on Aboriginal education.

Following her retirement in 1988 Ms O’Brien continued to be active in creating opportunities for Aboriginal people until her death in 2020.

Education minister Sue Ellery said: “May was a true activist and trailblazer and paved the way for the many Aboriginal educators who came after her. She was passionate about children’s education, women’s rights and the rights of Aboriginal people, and her legacy continues to have a significant impact on education in WA.”

Perth MP John Carey said: “She made significant contributions to the Mount Hawthorn community during her decade of teaching at the school, and will continue to do so as this mural and building carrying her name share her inspiring story with new generations.

“The May O’Brien Building will ensure that May’s commitment to the provision of education for all is not forgotten.”

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