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Fitzroy stories part 1: a First Nations history of Fitzroy

During the 1920s, many Aboriginal people moved to Fitzroy, Victoria, attracted by job prospects and cheap rent. Now replete with wine bars, bakeries and fancy restaurants, Fitzroy was once known as ‘Melbourne’s worst slum,’ but it was a thriving First Nations space with a real sense of community.

By the 1940s, Fitzroy had the largest First Nations population in Victoria, exemplifying a resilient community persevering after forced displacement and genocide at the hands of colonial settler governments. This area also birthed new forms of political activism, with two community hubs emerging. One of them was Gore Street Church, which was run by Doug Nicholls – a successful football player and the first Aboriginal man to play in the Victorian Football Association. Nicholls trained as a priest and used the church as a centre of resistance and activism.

The other community hub was for those who weren’t as religiously inclined – The Builders Arms. This was the first pub to allow First Nations people to drink in the public bar with other patrons. At the time, other venues were segregated, and First Nations people could only drink in a ‘blacks only’ bar. The Builders Arms became a meeting place for new arrivals to go to if they needed help, support or advice.

The Builders Arms was also in close proximity to another significant outlet for First Nations voices – The Koori Club. It was established by Lin Onus, asserting an ‘Aboriginal Only’ policy as a response to many public venues and their ‘no blacks’ rule. This policy was also influenced by the ‘Black Power’ movement in America. The club set up a newspaper called The Koorier, which became a significant publication nationwide. This club was also close to the first Indigenous Legal Aid service, the first Indigenous Housing Office and the first Indigenous Health Service.

The members of these services and communities gathered at The Builders Arms and Gore Street Church, both becoming important hangouts for local First Nations people until the late 1980s. Even though the Fitzroy of those days are long gone, its significant history remains in the stories passed on.

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