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Casey Donovan discovers her ancestors bravely fought cinema’s segregation policy


Sharlene King
22 May 2019

Singer Casey Donovan confronts the shameful racial segregation policy of a small NSW Mid North Coast town when she meets with a Southern Cross University historian in the next episode of the popular ancestry program, Who Do You Think You Are?

Dr Lisa Milner, who has researched the dark history of Bowraville and its Bowraville Theatre, and Gumbaynggirr Elder Uncle Martin Ballangarry share the information with Casey Donovan as part of the Australian Idol winner’s journey to solve the mystery of her father’s Aboriginal history when the episode airs on May 28 on SBS.

Having grown up without her father and learning that she herself is a native title holder in Gumbaynggirr country, Casey goes ‘back to country’, visiting Nambucca Heads and Bowraville to uncover her paternal Aboriginal ancestors.

“Coming on this journey has really opened my eyes and my heart and it’s lifted a weight. It makes me feel like I belong,” Casey Donovan says of the experience.

Only 50 years ago Bowraville, south of Coffs Harbour, had a reputation as a divided town, with Bowraville Theatre the most striking example. The theatre operated as a racially segregated business from 1940 until it closed down in 1965. The Indigenous community had to buy tickets separately, enter the theatre by a separate side entrance only once the program had started, occupy inferior wooden seats below an interior wooden partition, and leave before the end of the film.

Such was the town’s reputation that civil rights activist Charles Perkins and the Student Action for Aborigines Survey and Demonstration Bus Tour - or the Freedom Ride, as it became known - visited Bowraville in 1965. The Freedom Riders, along with members of the local Gumbaynngirr people, tried to enter the theatre in the same way the whites did. They failed, with the theatre owner shutting the doors in the faces of the protesters.

Southern Cross University’s Dr Lisa Milner was appointed the Bowraville Theatre’s restoration manager in 2000 when a group of residents determined to re-establish the theatre as the town’s centrepiece and to understand how community differences perpetuated by the early segregation practices could be overcome. The role gave Dr Milner firsthand access to archives and information that was later published in a research paper.

Dr Milner said raising awareness of Bowraville’s dark history with new national and international audiences through Who Do You Think You Are? was important.

“It’s important for us to raise questions about the past, to unearth what’s happened to our families and our communities. Australia has many hidden histories just waiting to be uncovered,” said Dr Milner.

“Passing on Bowraville’s history to Casey and the role her family had in standing up to racism, I think will give her a better understanding of her heritage.”

Casey’s visit to the Mid North Coast also included the discovery of a charismatic ancestor, her great great grandmother ‘Granny Flo’, who was an inspiring keeper of language and culture.

Who Do You Think You Are airs at 7.30pm, Tuesdays on SBS.