6 July 2020 // Shirley Perry
Coleen Shirley Perry Smith AM MBE (22 November 1921 – 28 April 1998), better known as Mum Shirl, was a prominent Wiradjuri woman, social worker and humanitarian activist committed to justice and welfare of Aboriginal Australians.
Born on Erambie Mission in Wiradjuri country near Cowra, New South Wales. She was not able to go to an ordinary school because she suffered from epilepsy and was taught at home by her grandfather. She could not read or write but was a master of linguistics and learned to speak 16 different Aboriginal Languages.
She was a founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney.
Her community activism also saw her accompanying people who were unfamiliar with the legal system to court when they had been charged with a crime. Her nickname came from her habit of replying, "I’m his mum" whenever officials queried her relationship with the prisoners - the name by which she became widely known. She also raised a total of 60 foster children in her home.
She was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1977 and the Order of Australia (1985). The National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) named Mum Shirl as Aborigine of the Year in 1990. Just a few months before her death, the National Trust acknowledged her as one of Australian National Living Treasures.
Her funeral in 1998 was attended by a number of dignitaries including the Governor General of Australia.