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Charlie Perkins Blue Plaque on wall at University of Sydney, Camperdown
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Dr Charles Perkins

Indigenous rights activist (1936–2000)

About Dr Charles Perkins

Dr Charles Perkins AO dedicated his life to the cause of civil rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. He studied at The University of Sydney from 1963 to 1966, becoming the first Indigenous person to graduate from an Australian university. His professional career was a lifelong journey devoted to drawing attention to discrimination and injustice, and improving the welfare of his people. Today, his legacy at the university lives on in the Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration and Prize, which was named in his honour, and in The University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

Location

  • Street address:Charles Perkins Centre John Hopkins Drive Sydney University, Camperdown Campus 2050
  • Traditional name:Timboon

Accessibility

  • Wheelchair accessible

Category

  • Aboriginal History
  • Government and political

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Detailed information

A black-and-white photograph of Indigenous activist and leader Charles Perkins behind his desk at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra, taken in 1974. Perkins is smiling with a pen in hand and work papers neatly set out. Photographer unknown.
Charles Perkins, Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 1974. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia NAA: A8739, A16/7/74/3

Dr Charles Perkins was born in 1936 at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in the Northern Territory. His mother was an Arrernte woman and his father a Kalkadoon man.

At ten years old Charles was sent to St Francis House in Adelaide, a school for Aboriginal boys. He initially trained as a fitter and turner, but he was an outstanding soccer player so in 1957 he left Australia to pursue a soccer career in the United Kingdom. He trialled for first division club Everton and was invited to trial for Manchester United but instead returned to Australia in 1960.

The following year, Charles began attending The University of Sydney. Shortly afterwards, he was elected president of the university’s newly formed Student Action for Aborigines group. He was one of only two Aboriginal students at the university.

In February 1965, 29 students including Charles and fellow Aboriginal student Gary Williams embarked on a 15-day bus tour of regional New South Wales - known as the Freedom Ride. It exposed discrimination against Aboriginal people, who were segregated from white peers or barred from using halls, swimming pools, picture theatres and hotels in many towns. The trip is still remembered as one of Australia’s most significant civil rights events.

Later that year, Charles made the news again when he staged the fake ‘kidnapping’ of five-year-old Nancy Prasad to highlight the injustice of her deportation under Australia’s White Australia Policy.

Charles helped establish the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney in 1965. He later joined the organisation full time after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts – the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university.

Moving to Canberra to work in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, he was rising through the ranks of the public service by the late 1970s. Charles was appointed chairman of the new Aboriginal Development Commission, then became Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1984.

Charles Perkins was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1987 for his service to Aboriginal welfare. In addition to receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws from The University of Sydney, Western Sydney University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters.

In later life, Charles played key roles on the boards of Aboriginal arts, sports and media organisations. He also served on the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission and the Arrernte Council of Central Australia Aboriginal Corporation.

Charles’ multifaceted contribution to Australia is recognised in the Charles Perkins Centre where his legacy of innovative thinking for public good continues.

Related information

The University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre

A black-and-white photograph of Charles Perkins and members of his family enjoying a night out at the Silver Spade Room at the Chevron Hilton Hotel, Sydney, May 1966. Photograph by Alec Iverson.
Charles Perkins and family in the Silver Spade Room at the Chevron Hilton Hotel, Sydney, May 1966. Photo: Alec Iverson . Image courtesy State Library NSW ON 388/Box 133/Item 072

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