Freedom Ride Redux: Driving With Lyall

Lyall Dennnison was born in Moree and lived there until he moved to Sydney at the age of 21 to work for the State Premier. At the evening concert in Moree, he approached students from the Freedom Ride and offered to show us around. After taking one carload around, Samantha Jonscher was lucky enough to get a spot in his second tour.

We start by driving to Top Camp. Lyall grew up here. Now though there are only eight houses left standing in disrepair. The others are completely burnt out. To quote a fellow student on the tour, “it was fucking dire”.

“When I was here it was run perfect, they aren’t now and you can see the difference.” Gesturing to his left, he points to an empty, overgrown lot. “The school used to be there, just an Aboriginal school up to year six—there was also an oval. This would have been the teacher’s house, next to the oval”. As we drive he points to other landmarks along the way; “I grew up here. That was the manager’s house, that was our pool we looked after—now look at it”. The pool is in bad shape—empty, graffitied and full of rubbish. “No money to look after it. The men on the mission, my grandfathers, built it themselves.”

“We loved the school, it was our school, we had black teachers and learnt our language. We learnt our language, we all got along. I mean we didn’t know any better, about discrimination and racism, we thought it was great. That is where the church was, I used to hate going—every Sunday we would go and my mother would make me have cod liver oil.”

Lyall gestures to where the church had been. All that’s left is that empty, overgrown lot. We turn around and drive back into town, passing a group of houses in similar state to those on the reserve.

“See those houses over there? Those are all housing estates, you know who lives there? Black fellas. Still black fellas living together, it’s not a mission but it’s not much different. We always cop it—the bad things.”

It starts to drizzle. We pass the oval that had hosted the concert. The grass had certainly seen better days and the facilities were in disrepair.

“That’s the concert is the black fella oval, that’s where the Moree Boomerangs train.” They won the 2013 Rugby League Grand Final. We drive past. Not far down the road is another field. This one is lit bright by floodlights, the grass is green and they have a nice looking club house. “Now that’s the white oval—look at those lights! We don’t have any of those.” It’s the home of the Moree Boars.

We drive on. Lyall points out additional points of interest, family homes mostly. We drive through Bottom Camp, another ex-mission—it looks much the same and Lyall explains that the way Aboriginal people are made to live in ghettos means they end up colliding. “Our people make up a lot of people here, but when elections come around all of the groups put up different candidates”. Then we come to the RSL. “We have an Aboriginal person on the board now, we have had a few on the board. Of course we couldn’t have even gone in back in the day, back when Charlie Perkins came through. I was in the reserve for five years, not sure why I went, it was the thing to do at the time. My grandfathers were in the war and when they came home from the war got nothing, they weren’t allowed in.”

Not far from there is the school. “You know what I was saying about the school on the mission? That was only up to grade six. So after that we came to this white school. You see these old buildings up the side? I don’t know what they do now, but top to bottom they were A-F—they were the classes, they were ranked, G and H up the back was where all the black fellas were, even if we were smart enough we weren’t good enough to be in A, B. So we copped it again. Now we have a lot of Aboriginal teacher’s aids in schools, so that’s changed, that’s good.”

We drive on again. “This is Moree’s big new police station”. It is large and well lit, clearly new.  “You won’t see any white people in there.” It opened in 2013 and is the biggest in North West NSW.

Out the window we see an outdoor picture theatre. It’s abandoned now. “This is where the picture theatre was, we had to go in last, the white people went in first, then us and we sat up the front, on the floor. We always missed the trailers—the shorts in those days—because we had to come in last. When it was time to leave, we had to wait until everyone else had left and then we had to go out the back door. We loved the Saturday matinee—to see Batman and Robin. I mean if we didn’t go do that what else would we do?”

As we drive on, the houses start to change, the lawns get larger, the houses larger, everything just nicer. “This is West Moree, not many black fellas around here. It’s different isn’t it? Right here we had a centre called MASH, Moree Aboriginal Sobriety House. It’s not going now. We try to look after our own problems, we try to help our own but they took this away. The Ice is here now. Heroin is bad here too and there isn’t anywhere around to help.”

Lyall slows down and pulls into a laneway. There are fences on two sides and at the end is an embankment. “We had a shooting about 30 years ago, before I left. He was my wife’s cousin, name was Cheeky McIntosh and he was over at mine about half an hour before he got shot. To get home from the oval, we had to walk this way, down this laneway. 3 or 4 of them were walking home and when they got about halfway down the lane, some cars came and blocked one entrance. Two white guys with guns waited at the other end. You can see—they were completely trapped. So that night a big riot started, when they declared that boy dead. He was 18 or 19. Two white kids shot a black kid and went away for manslaughter.”

A few blocks away on our way back the oval where we started, we slowed down again in front of the shop front. “See that big fish and chips shop? The mayor owns that, her father was leader of the Liberal National party. I left here when I was 21, I never moved back.”

For more information: Honi’s coverage of the 2015 Freedom Ride