Soldier’s family torn apart by White Australia policy

December 22, 2013
Lucy Marks

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Forced to separate from his family: Don Carter. Photo: Matthew Smithwick

Despite serving in Townsville, Don Carter’s African American father could not migrate to Australia.

Don Carter grew up in a family divided by World War II and the colour of his parents’ skin. His Aboriginal mother and African American father, an allied serviceman stationed in Townsville, were married, then separated after neither could migrate to their partner’s country after the war, due to racist migration policies.

Carter, who was born in 1943, grew up in Innisfail far from his mother, who worked 90 kilometres away in Cairns. As a single mother, she worked in a ply mill and later an abattoir, travelling back every weekend to visit her only child.

”I had cousins who I grew up with but I never had anyone I could call dad,” Carter says.

Carter’s father was posted out a year after he married in 1941. They never met again but did exchange a series of intimate letters and photographs.

Now, a new project directed by Dr Victoria Grieves, indigenous research fellow at Sydney University, will chronicle the untold stories of children fathered by allied troops in Australia during World War II.

Grieves will begin the project with Carter’s story. She worked with him 20 years ago and first heard his story over a lunch break.

”These two people loved each other, and they loved their little boy, and neither country could provide the circumstance for that family to raise their son,” Grieves says.

The previously documented stories of ”war brides” – when Australian women married to allied troops during war time migrated to the US after the war – are an overwhelmingly ”white story”, she says.

The project, starting next year, will collect the stories of children who grew up in families like Don’s, divided by the White Australia Policy.

The immigration policy barred African American troops returning to Australia even if they had married Australian women. Grieves says a similar segregation policy in the US, referred to as the ”Jim Crow laws”, prevented married Aboriginal women migrating to the US because of their colour.

”This period between 1941 to 1944 is an opportunity to look at the way these two segregation regimes came together on the Australian mainland,” Grieves says. ”The project is designed to help them [children of allied soldiers] understand their origin and identity and to help solve some of the mystery.’

Grieves says potentially thousands of children grew up in separated families or were institutionalised because of the racist policies. With about 800,000 American troops passing through Australia, there were 12,000 white war brides but it is unknown how many mixed-race marriages there were.

Grieves found one example of the stories she aims to uncover when researching the family of prominent Aboriginal activist Bobbi Sykes.

”I found letters from her mother in the archive, writing to two prime ministers to ask if the White Australia Policy could be suspended to allow the father of her two small girls to come back and live and the answer on both occasions is ‘no’,” Grieves says. ”In the same records, you can find that the government is actually paying the passage of white American and white Australian couples when they want to come back to Australia to live.”

Carter had been searching for his father for decades when his daughter, Georgia Gleeson, found his relatives in the US via and arranged a family reunion in June.

”I was ecstatic and, of course, at that stage I didn’t know that dad had passed away so I thought I’d get to meet my dad,” Carter says.

Having missed the June reunion, Gleeson, a mother of four and part of the Robert de Castella indigenous marathon team, met her newly found family at the finish line of the New York Marathon last month.

”I felt happiness … but also a bit of sadness for my dad who has been looking, he’s in his 70s now and it’s taken so long,” Gleeson says. ”Now I have my own children, you realise the importance of where you come from … now they know their ancestry.’

Grieves says she is aiming to achieve dual American citizenship for the descendants.

Carter says American citizenship ”will give me something I can hold onto [and] say, ‘Well, I am the child of an American father and my family is in America and I’m part of that family now.”’