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Roberts, Frank (1899–1968)

by Heather Radi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Frank Roberts (c.1899-1968), pastor, was born about 1899 at Blakebrook, near Lismore, New South Wales, eldest of fifteen children of Australian-born parents Lyle Roberts, labourer, and his wife Bella, née Davis. Lyle was a fully initiated Bundjalung who later converted to Christianity. Educated at the segregated school at Cabbage Tree Island station, near Wardell, which was maintained by the Board for Protection of Aborigines, Frank worked as a labourer. On 13 August 1918 at the Presbyterian manse, Ballina, he married Dorothy Hart. He took his family to Lismore, probably in 1925. Armed with character references and a solicitor's letter, he succeeded in enrolling his children in a public school. When the segregation of students resumed in 1928, the Robertses returned to Cabbage Tree Island.

Following a 'violent argument' with the station's manager, Roberts and his family moved in 1937 to the Aboriginal settlement at Tuncester, near Lismore, where there was no board-appointed manager. About 1933 he had committed himself to evangelism under the auspices of the United Aborigines Mission. Frank, his father and brothers held prayer meetings and ran the Tuncester settlement. In an effort to put pressure on families to move to supervised reserves, the Aborigines Protection Board had closed the school and threatened to remove children from their parents. Roberts campaigned against the board's policies.

Tuncester became a refuge for Aborigines who objected to the authority of White managers on stations and reserves. Roberts called the settlement by its Aboriginal name, Cubawee, which meant 'plentiful food'. He thanked God for 'the spiritual food'. With U.A.M. evangelists from Purfleet, he travelled to Sydney in 1938 for the 'Day of Mourning' protest. He later recruited Bundjalung people to the Aborigines' Progressive Association in the hope that 'the Association will smash up the Aborigines Destruction Board'.

In 1940, with his eldest son, Roberts organized—independently of the U.A.M.—a convention at Cubawee 'for the deepening of the spiritual life'. Hundreds participated in what became an annual event and a model for other gatherings. The U.A.M. listed Roberts as a 'native helper' and then as a 'native evangelist' before appointing him a 'native pastor' in 1947. The idea of an autonomous indigenous church gathered support within the mission and in 1950 it was proposed that Roberts work interstate to this end. Nothing came of the plan because of a lack of money. He retired from the U.A.M. in 1956, but remained a 'prayer partner'.

Cubawee was crowded, dilapidated and without sanitation. Neither the Aborigines Welfare Board nor Lismore City Council met its needs. Roberts protested in vain. As official policy gradually came to favour assimilation, the buildings on Cubawee were bulldozed in 1964 to force the remaining residents to move. Land security and Aboriginal independence had been two of Roberts's persistent aims. His achievement—the creation of a relatively autonomous Christian network across Bundjalung communities—underpinned their reassertion of land rights in the 1960s. Suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema, Roberts died of a coronary occlusion on 21 June 1968 at Lismore and was buried in the local lawn cemetery with the forms of the Assemblies of God. His wife, and their three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Reay (ed), Aborigines Now (Syd, 1964)
  • H. Goodall, Invasion to Embassy (Syd, 1996)
  • Select Committee on Administration of Aborigines Protection Board, Proceedings, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1938-40, vol 7
  • Australian Abo Call, May, July 1938
  • United Aborigines' Messenger, Apr 1939, Sept 1940, June 1947, Feb-Apr, June-July, Sept-Oct 1950, Aug 1953, Dec 1955
  • Richmond River Historical Society, Bulletin, 47, 1968, p 11.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Roberts, Frank (1899–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-frank-11535/text20579, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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