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Ruby Florence Hammond (1936–1993)

by Margaret Allen and Judith Raftery

This article was published:

Ruby Florence Hammond (1936–1993), Aboriginal activist and public servant, was born on 10 March 1936 at Kingston SE, South Australia, second of eight children of South-Australian born parents Arthur Ahang, of Tanganekald and Chinese heritage, labourer, and Ethel Hilda Wachman, née Ellis, of Western Arrente heritage, formerly a domestic servant. The Ahangs were part of the Aboriginal community at Blackford (Murrabinna), near Kingston SE, and believed that their children’s future lay in adopting European customs, and especially acquiring a European education. Ruby grew up being comfortable in both black and white society, a valuable foundation for her subsequent career.

Beginning her education at Blackford School, Ruby went on to complete the Intermediate Certificate at Kingston Area School in 1952. Her first jobs in Kingston SE, in a hotel and then in a shop, where she was required to work out of sight of the customers, brought her face to face with racism. At sixteen she had a son, who was reared by her parents, and at eighteen she moved to Adelaide where she gained employment as a switchboard operator in the Postmaster-General’s Department. On 25 March 1961 Ahang married Bill (Les) Hammond at the Methodist Church, Port Adelaide; the marriage did not last. Four years later she married her former brother-in-law Frank Hammond, a motor mechanic.

In Adelaide, Hammond developed an understanding of the needs of urban Aboriginal people through her association with activists, notably Gladys Elphick, and she joined the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, which worked to counter discrimination in the community. She travelled in 1971 to Marree and the surrounding region in search of her mother’s heritage. By this time she was committed to working with and for Aboriginal people. At the council Hammond developed advocacy and public-speaking skills. Her talents were quickly recognised and she received many requests to participate in organisations and projects in Australia and internationally. These included membership of delegations to China (1972) and the Soviet Union (1976), the steering committee of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (1973), the inaugural Aboriginal Arts Board (1973), and the national advisory committee for International Women’s Year (1974–76).

Aware of the need of many Aboriginal people for legal advice and support, in 1974 Hammond joined the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, starting as a field officer and soon becoming executive director. She asserted that the ALRM’s brief went beyond supporting those facing criminal charges and that it needed also to address the social problems underlying the high levels of Aboriginal crime and incarceration. Believing that land rights were human rights, indivisible from questions of equality and justice, she broadened the ALRM’s activities through her support of the Pitjantjatjara land rights cause—a move that led to her dismissal in 1979. Although she was subsequently reinstated, she felt that the situation was untenable and resigned.

Completing a degree in Aboriginal Affairs Administration at the South Australian Institute of Technology (BA, 1985), Hammond took up employment in the State public service, first with the Department of Health, and then with the Equal Opportunity Branch of the Department of Personnel and Industrial Relations. In 1988 she stood, unsuccessfully, in a by-election for the Federal seat of Port Adelaide as the candidate for the Independent Aboriginal Cultural Party; she was the first South Australian Aboriginal person to seek election to Federal parliament. The following year she was selected as head of the South Australian Aboriginal Issues Unit of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and in 1990 she was appointed to the National Women’s Consultative Council. Her final public service appointment, as advisor to the State Department of the Arts and Cultural Heritage, built on her contributions to film and drama and her belief in the arts as a means of reconciliation. Roles in the 1975 film, Sister if You Only Knew, and the 1989 Black and White Theatre Group production of Is This Seat Taken? are examples of her earlier commitment.

Initially, Hammond viewed racism as a product of ignorance that could be dispelled by education. This perspective gradually transformed into an understanding of the deep-seated disadvantage and dispossession from which Aboriginal people suffered, the complex historical causes that underlay Aboriginal issues, and the institutionalised nature of racism. Never a separatist, she believed in Aboriginal people having the right to choose between integration into the Australian ‘mainstream,’ or living according to their own cultures without foregoing opportunities for social and economic equality. Her determined optimism, warm personality, and constructive approach meant that she was valued as a speaker, facilitator, board member, and consultant. Her workload was prodigious.

Hammond was named South Australian Woman of the Year (1977), awarded an Australian Public Service medal (1993), and, posthumously, an equal opportunity achievement award (1993). In 1994 a South Australian electoral district was named in her honour. She is memorialised at the Port Adelaide Workers Memorial and at Reconciliation Place, Canberra. After battling cancer, she died in Le Fevre Community Hospital on 16 April 1993, survived by her husband, her sons John and Bruce, and daughter Sandra Southwell. Following a funeral at Port Adelaide Uniting Church she was buried in Cheltenham cemetery.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Forte, Margaret. Flight of an Eagle: The Dreaming of Ruby Hammond. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1996
  • Hammond, Bruce. Interview by the authors, 25 March 2014
  • Hammond, Frank. Interview by the authors, 1 April 2014
  • Hammond, John. Interview by the authors, 1 April 2014
  • Hammond, Ruby. ‘Institutional Racism: The Biggest Block.’ Unity (United Ethnic Communities of South Australia), no. 10 (April 1988): 12–14
  • Southwell, Sandra, and Irene Allan. Interview by Judith Raftery, 18 February 2014
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1040, Papers of Ruby Hammond
  • Wanganeen, Edmund, comp. Justice Without Prejudice: The Development of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in South Australia. Adelaide: South Australian College of Advanced Education Aboriginal Studies and Teacher Education Centre, 1986

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Allen and Judith Raftery, 'Hammond, Ruby Florence (1936–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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