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Black, Harry Bradford (1919–2011)

by Harriet Veitch

Harry Black, n.d.

Harry Black, n.d.

Harry Black was a member of the Maritime Union of Australia for more than 50 years. With the union, he fought to have heritage preserved by putting the Hungry Mile on the map and stood with then-NSW premier Nathan Rees and lord mayor Clover Moore in July 2009 when the area was officially unveiled as an urban space.

''It is a significant place. It's like having an area allocated to us that is sacred to us. It's sacred to those who worked here, who struggled and who were successful and that's why we look on it as a sacred area,'' he said in an interview in 2007.

In his time, Black served in the union as a rank-and-file activist on the Sydney docks, as a rank-and-file wharfie, a delegate, a vigilance officer, senior vice-president of the Sydney branch, a rank-and-file representative on the federal council of the Waterside Workers Federation and as a union elder leading the MUA National Veterans Association in his role as secretary from 2002-09.

Harry Bradford Black was born on August 17, 1919, in the small town of Rylstone, in the central tablelands, one of 11 children of William Black and his wife, Alice Grant. After some schooling, Harry worked in various jobs before joining the army in 1940. He served in North Africa, Syria, New Guinea and Borneo before being injured and brought back to Australia.

When he came out of Concord Hospital, the war was over and he was looking for work. Some wharfie friends suggested he give the job a go and in 1950, he started work, mainly at the Sussex Street docks and on the Hungry Mile (Darling Harbour East, now known as Barangaroo), as a casual labourer for 12 shillings a day.

''They [the workers] were pitted against each other because this was the kind of environment that employers like to develop, with one against the other, dog eat dog and so forth,'' Black said in a 2006 interview about his life. ''And yet they survived and they survived by coming together in defence of working conditions, to improve working conditions, to have a period when they were led by people who were determined that we should work under decent conditions, proper conditions and humane conditions, because many of the times in the Hungry Mile, they were not humane conditions.''

At the time, prime minister Bob Menzies, who had just come to power, was trying to carry out his election promise to have the Communist Party of Australia declared unlawful. Black had already done some work for friends in the party and in 1953, formally joined. He was an active member for the rest of his life.

Black was also part of the Waterside Workers Federation's film unit, which played a significant part in the national strike of 1954.

Later, the WWF was in solidarity with the Vietnamese people against the war in that country and Black was a delegate when the union voted to ban the loading of bombs for Vietnam onto HMAS Jeparit.

In 2004, at the launch of Lisa Milner's book Fighting Films, about the film unit, Black recalled the bad bits about the era — the Cold War and ASIO raids on the union rooms in Sydney and Melbourne. He also remembered it as a time of flourishing activism and culture, a time when Paul Robeson performed in the union hall and the film Pensions for Veterans was screened in Leichhardt stadium at a stopwork meeting of 6000 wharfies.

Later, Black worked with the union as it supported the fight against apartheid in South Africa and in the late 1990s, even though he had retired in 1981, he stood proud at Darling Harbour during the ''waterfront war'', when Patrick Stevedores locked out 3000 workers.

Black spent most of his days and many nights at No.5 Darling Harbour, arm-in-arm with other community protesters, facing down trucks trying to break the picket and enter the gates.

In his later years, Black visited Fort Street Primary School to tell the children stories about life on the Hungry Mile. Harry Black is survived by his sisters — Gwenith, Joy, Rita and Beth — and nieces Madeline and Glenda.

His wife, Mary Barrett, died in the 1970s.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Black, Harry Bradford (1919–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/black-harry-bradford-13410/text24058, accessed 13 November 2019.

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