Wemba Wemba Elder Barbara Walker was a leader in establishing services for the Aboriginal community in the Dandenong area. Her involvement with welfare and education services, including her promotion of early childhood education, contributed significantly to the lives of those in her community.
Barbara was born in 1927 in Barham in the Riverina area of New South Wales. Barbara’s parents were Wallace Robert Egan of Lake Condah and Nancy Day of Moonahcullah, located 40 kilometres north-west of Deniliquin in New South Wales.
Barbara was one of 10 children who grew up in Barham. Her education finished at grade 3 as that was the extent of schooling available to Aboriginal children in the Riverina area at the time. At 13 Barbara began work as a domestic hand on a sheep station.
In 1945, when Barbara was 18, she married Kevin Walker of Cummeragunja
The couple began married life in Echuca, but moved to a home at Moonahcullah in 1947. Moonahcullah settlement was established by the Aborigines Inland Mission, a broadly Protestant organisation. Barbara and Kevin had 10 children – 5 boys and 5 girls. Conditions were generally poor for Aboriginal women and their families in regional Australia. One aspect of this experienced by Barbara was being segregated from white women in the Deniliquin maternity hospital. As a consequence Barbara gave birth to most of her children on the hospital veranda.
Nevertheless Barbara and Kevin made the most of life at Moonahculla. She recalled that, while her husband Kevin was often away from home shearing, her children had the freedom to play in the nearby bush and fish in the river. Despite a lack of running water and electricity, the small settlement had a strong and nurturing Aboriginal culture and was well supported by the Methodist Church.
When the mission was closed at Moonahcullah around 1961, Barbara and Kevin moved their large family to Doveton, near Melbourne, where there were greater opportunities for work and education. Kevin soon secured a position with the Gas and Fuel Corporation in Dandenong.
Barbara found the adjustment to urban life difficult. She recalled that she would sit in her house looking out at the nearby hills and ‘yearn to be back in a place where I could go for walks and get mushrooms.’
Aborigines Advancement League
Barbara had a strong connection with the Aborigines Advancement League and although the League’s activities were often based in the inner suburbs of Melbourne she got to know many of the leaders and their families. Christmas was a special time when Barbara would take her 10 children on the train from Dandenong to Northcote to see the League’s Christmas tree.
Formation of the Dandenong and District Aborigines Association
In the early 1970s in Dandenong the Walkers, along with other Aboriginal families in the area, including the Terrick, Harrison, Blow and Charles families, held meetings in their homes. They were concerned that the growing Koori community needed better support and access to services in their area. To remedy this situation they formed the Dandenong and District Aborigines Association in conjunction with the Victorian Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs. In 1975 the organisation was incorporated and became the Dandenong and District Aborigines Co-operative Society Limited (DDACSL). Initial government funding was provided to help develop programs that would address unemployment and life skills in the Koori community in Dandenong, Doveton, Hallam, Noble Park, a developing Endeavour Hills and as far afield as Healesville. Barbara was the first voluntary Secretary of the Co-operative and the committee held regular meetings hosted by Barbara in her home in Doveton.
DDACSL formed a close association was with the Gunai Lodge hostel, later renamed the Roy Harrison hostel. The hostel was established to meet the needs of young Aboriginal men coming to Dandenong from Gippsland for apprenticeships, job training and educational purposes. From the mid-1970s both Kevin and Barbara Walker were members of the hostel’s Special Purpose Committee – Kevin as President and Barbara as Executive Secretary.
Victoria’s first Aboriginal woman Field Officer
In the early 1970s Barbara was employed by the Victorian Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs as a Field Officer. She was Victoria’s first Aboriginal woman Field Officer dealing with finance and housing. Barbara worked alongside Wayne Atkinson and Alick Jackomos, in Melbourne’s south-west, to improve the lives of Aboriginal families through access to services.
From 1973 up until the late 1980s when she retired, Barbara worked for the Doveton Uniting Church as a kindergarten assistant. Her love of children and concern for her community played a significant role in encouraging Aboriginal children in the Doveton area to attend the kindergarten. She worked assiduously to promote the importance of early childhood education.
Barbara’s faith was important to her and she had a strong connection to the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship (AEF). She held the position of voluntary secretary of the AEF in Victoria for many years and would often welcome members of the AEF into her home for meetings. The AEF was based in Port Augusta in South Australia and Barbara would often be found on cooking duty at their national gatherings.
Barbara Walker - mother to 10 children, 35 grandchildren, 69 great-grandchildren, seven great-great-grandchildren (and counting) – was a warm and generous person. Her work in welfare, early childhood and church activities inspired her family, friends and the wider community. Barbara spent her retirement years back on her country at Elimdale near Moonahcullah in New South Wales.
Reviewed 11 October 2019