• The legacy of Sir Doug Nicholls is honoured each year with the AFL's Indigenous Round. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
Ahead of the AFL round named in his honour, NITV News takes a look at the inspirational leadership and community advocacy of the trailblazing Yorta Yorta legend Sir Doug Nicholls.
Douglas Smith, Jack Latimore

22 Aug 2020 - 1:48 AM  UPDATED 22 Aug 2020 - 2:01 AM

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Sir Doug Nicholls to the Koori mobs in Victoria, but the influence of the Yorta Yorta man's life and activism is also present across the entire Australian nation, even 32-years after his passing.

There is a memorial statue to Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls now standing in the gardens beside Victoria's Parliament House. Erected in 2006 to commemorate the centenary of Nicholls' birth, at the time it was, astonishingly, the first statue of an Aboriginal person erected in Victoria.

Like the statue, Nicholls' presence persists in the street grids of the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne too. Parks and reserves are named in his honour, as is at least one sporting complex. Memories of the man also continue to reside in such iconic locations as Gore Street, Fitzroy where Nicholls was a pastor for the Aboriginal Church of Christ in the 1940s.

In June, the site was heritage listed by the Victorian government.

There are other buildings too that still carry palpable memories of the man and serve to provide a sharp reminder of his ongoing legacy. Some vital and treasured community organisations continue to operate out of them, such as the Aborigines Advancement League in Thornbury, while others that owe their establishment in large part to the activism of Nicholls continue on in new locations.

This weekend's Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round of the AFL, now in its fourth year, is both a respectful nod of admiration to the man's sporting feats and acknowledgment of the role he played in fostering the Reconciliation movement in the infant nation of Australia through the early and middle decades of last century.  

As an athlete, Nicholls was a celebrated footballer, recognised for winning a premiership for Northcote in 1929 in the Victorian Football Association , and most famously, playing 54 games for the Fitzroy Football Club in the Victorian Football League between 1932-1937.

Lesser known is Nicholls' role in arranging exhibition football matches between Aboriginal teams and Northcote during the final years of the second world war for desperate football fans. The proceeds of which went towards Aboriginal welfare initiatives.

He represented the state in 1935 and after retiring as a player, returned to the game in 1947 to coach Northcote. The following year he became the curator for Northcote's home ground and remained in that role until 1957.

Apart from football, in his youth Nicholls was also known to acquit himself well in the boxing ring and toured with the Jimmy Sharman troupe, likewise he could also sprint fast enough to make a name and tidy earner for himself in several gift races within Victoria during the 1920s. 

From footballer to governor

Nicholls' was also active in the Aboriginal civil rights movement during his football career. As an early member of the Australian Aborigines' League he participated in the now acclaimed Day of Mourning protest in Sydney on January 26, 1938 alongside his great-uncle William Cooper.

With Cooper, the young Nicholls also diligently petitioned parliamentary ministers at state and federal level for the advancement of Aboriginal rights and constitutional change. Later he would go on to become founding member of the Aborigines' Advancement League in Victoria, alongside his wife Lady Gladys, who was also a leader in her own right. 

In the late 1950s, the couple established a hostel for girls in Northcote, now called the Lady Gladys Nicholls hostel, to contend with the problem of Aboriginal homelessness. In the early 1960s they set one up for boys and marched together through the streets of Melbourne city to protest against the closure of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station by the state's Aboriginal Welfare Board. Later that decade they would establish the Doug Nicholls Centre as another gathering place for community.

In 1972, Nicholls was knighted and in 1976, Sir Douglas Nicholls accepted the post of Governor of South Australia to demonstrate that Aboriginal people were capable of anything. 

Forced to return to Melbourne due to health issues after serving 12 months in the role, Sir Doug Nicholls passed a decade later in 1988. He was honoured with a state funeral.

Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous round AFL guerneys for 2020
One of the most anticipated rounds of the year is here, with the Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous round starting on Friday night with the Gold Coast Suns taking on Carlton at Darwin’s TIO stadium.