“One of the most courageous leaders of the Purfleet people.”2
Biripi woman Shirley Mitchell was born in 1933 and grew up on Purfleet Aboriginal Reserve.3 When welfare authorities came to Purfleet to take Aboriginal children with fairer skin, Shirley’s mother fled with her children to Barrington Tops.4
In 1950 Shirley married Rex Morris and they had ten children.5 Shirley again was forced to flee from authorities with her own children in the 1950s before returning to Purfleet.6
At the time, housing conditions at Purfleet were substandard which led to poor health outcomes for residents.7 Shirley began attending meetings of the ‘Black Power Movement’ in the 1960s with Alice Briggs and Hughie Ridgeway. They had a passion for equal rights for their people.8
In 1972 an outrageous incident occurred that received nation-wide coverage. Shirley, a leading member of the Purfleet community, attended a protest in Canberra as a spokesperson. She left her younger children in the care of her married daughter Sandra. While Shirley was away welfare officials seized her children and charged them with neglect. They were held in the Taree police station overnight. A week later a national protest took place in support of Shirley and other women facing discrimination.9
The family faced court where the children were returned to their mother on a 12 month bond.10 Not to be intimidated, Shirley continued her activism speaking at the Newcastle march of the now-famous Black Moratorium in July 1972.11
Shirley continued to lead her people and investigate all methods of self-help and self-employment.12 Among other things, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Purfleet Taree Local Aboriginal Land Council and the medical services now known as the Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre.13
Author: Janine Roberts with kind help from Shirley’s son Rex Morris.
1 Tribune 21 March 1972, 5.
2 Tribune 1 March 1972, 12.
3 Oral history from Rex Morris Jnr, 2021.
4 Oral history from Aunty Barb Clarke, 2020.
5 NSW BDM, marriage index for Rex Gerald Morris and Shirley Dawn Mitchell, No. 7569/1950.
6 Oral history from Rex Morris Jnr, 2021.
7 Tribune 21 Mar 1972, 5.
9 Tribune, 9 March 1972, 1
10 Tribune 1 March 1972, 12.
11 Tribune, 18 July 1972, 10.
12 Tribune 21 Mar 1972, 5.
13 https://ptlalc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Purfleet-Taree-CLBP2016.pdf; https://biripi.org.au/our-history/.