WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this article may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.
The Year was 1956, a mere 168 years since the invasion/colonisation of Australia; First Nations Australians were not ‘counted’ as people by the colonisers, placed under the Flora and Fauna Act (1901) life was not only brutal for our people in practical terms, but was intensely psychologically demoralising.
Yet there was a young gregarious girl by the name of Margaret Rose Williams (later to be called Williams-Weir after marriage), a beautiful Malera Bundjalung/ Gumbaynggirr sister that trod the inner terrain of her land of Grafton northern NSW, with both pride and resilience. The youngest child of a family of ten children Margaret would become the FIRST Aboriginal Australian to attend university, and the FIRST Aboriginal Australian to graduate university.
An extremely intelligent young girl, Margaret or Margo as she was often called, graduated Casino High School in 1956 and in January 1957 was offered a scholarship to the University of Queensland, where she enrolled and began an Arts degree. According to an article written by Nikki Henningham of The University of Melbourne Williams-Weir stated “I was the first Aboriginal person to go to university in Australia; there was a great amount of publicity.”
However, an Arts degree proved to be the wrong direction for Williams-Weir, who after a month or so put in for a transfer to the University of Melbourne where she began a Diploma of Physical Education. Her heart may have pounded with the prospect of leaving her home state and being so far from her family and traditional lands. Her mind may have spun at the thought of being alone in a large city where the colonialist attitudes of racism and hate were rife, yet this young Malera Bundjalung woman was staunch and craved an understanding of what this life was all about.
“When I was about five my mother started my spiritual learning and my life changed,” Williams-Weir said during presenting the inaugural Yarramundi lecture for the University of Western Sydney in 2014.
“She told me that we came to earth for two reasons: one was to learn to be a better person and the other one was to do your job for God (The Creator), which I call the sacred labour.”
There was support from the education elite in Melbourne for Williams-Weir where she was offered boarding at the University Women’s College. Margo was acutely aware of the enormity of her journey. She felt an immense pressure to succeed, not only for herself but for all First Nations Australians that would come after her. As the innovator of this path, she not only ‘blazed’ through it, she bulldozed through so many walls of resistance to become the FIRST Aboriginal Australian to graduate from a university with her Diploma of Physical Education in 1959 – because of HER we all now can.
Williams-Weir, having graduated from the University of Melbourne instinctly knew that the ‘world was there for (her).’ Having the qualification allowed her to embark on teaching for the next twenty years after her graduation. She taught in Australia, Canada and England.
“The big thing about travelling was that I was out of the cloud of racism that exists in Australia and I was able to have the freedom to be who I am. When people met me they took me for who I was, for what I was. It was great to develop and grow,” She said during the lecture in 2014.
Whilst Williams-Weir was living in Canada she decided to join the Canadian Military, and served from 1966 to 1969 before meeting her husband, Bill Weir. She lived in Canada another decade before returning to Australia where she then joined the Commonwealth Teaching Service and she and her husband worked in the remote community of Yuendumu, Northern Territory where she has said she met some of the ‘loveliest people she had ever met in her life.’
Later in her journey Williams-Weir went on to complete an Honours Research Masters degree and then a PhD through the University of New England, making her Dr Margaret Williams-Weir. She established her own consultancy business doing education research projects assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders nation-wide.
Dr Margaret Williams-Weir, with her legacy of courage and grit, came full circle and settled back in her traditional lands of the Baryulgil region of Grafton with her husband Bill.
In 2015 The University of Melbourne honoured her by naming one of its annual Vice-Chancellor Fellowships after her as well as the post graduate students’ lounge in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education; the ‘Dr Margaret Williams-Weir lounge.’
Not long after these celebrations of her phenomenal achievements Margo passed away on 1 October 2015, aged 75, having had an extraordinary life due to her own grit and determination in honouring her truth.
Kate L Munro is a Gamilaroi journalist specialising in the Aboriginal arts sector, with published works in the Koori Mail, Guardian and The Traker.
Photo credit: Peter Casamento.