Doug Nicholls was born on December 9, 1906, at Cummeragunja Reserve, a small Aboriginal Australian community in rural New South Wales. The youngest of five children, Nicholls grew up surrounded by cattle and sheep stations and attended school at the local church mission.
By the age of 13, Nicholls was working for his uncle as a hand on a local farm, where he was known for his charming, boyish personality and strong work ethic. The young Nicholls showed plenty of athleticism, catching on with the Tongala Blues, a local Australian rules football club across the Murray River in country Victoria.
Eventually, Nicholls got good enough at footy in order to try out for both Carlton and North Melbourne – two teams in the Victorian Football League (VFL) – in 1927 at the age of 21. While Nicholls briefly played for Carlton’s reserves squad, his lack of height (5’2″) worked against him and he eventually chose to leave the club in favor of the Northcote Dragons Football Club, a team that competed in the Victorian Football Association (VFA).
Nicholls was able to work his way into the Dragons’ starting lineup by the 1929 season, and was eventually selected by Fitzroy, a well-established VFL club, in 1932. Known for his exceptional speed and ability to make smart decisions with the footy, Nicholls soon became a crowd favorite, although he was also subject to locker room taunts due to his ethnicity. It wasn’t until teammate Haydn Bunton befriended Nicholls that the young Aborigine felt like he belonged. In 1935, Nicholls became the first indigenous player to play for the Victorian state team.
Nicholls also used his athletic talents to help fellow Aborigines, as well as raise funds by organizing footy matches to support Australian troops during WWII. He was also named the inaugural chairman of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation. Following the death of his mother, Nicholls began to take an interest in the ministry, becoming a Church of Christ member after getting baptized in 1935.
While Nicholls wanted to serve in WWII, he was eventually released from his duties in order to help the Fitzroy community, including many Aborigines who suffered from alcoholism. In addition to his Christian ministry work, Nicholls became a social worker and was a voice against the alcoholism and gambling problems that he felt were plaguing his community. He also helped set up hostels for abandoned children, built vacation homes for poor families, and was also a field officer for the Aboriginal Advancement League. Many people admired Nicholls’s enthusiasm and charisma, and he eventually became the minister of the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in the country.
In 1953, Nicholls received a great honor when he was recommended to be a part of the Australian contingency that attended Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. This never materialized, but the recommendation specifically highlighted the positive community activism that Nicholls had been doing (he did eventually help welcome the Queen when she toured Australia in 1970).
Among other career highlights, Nicholls was chosen as a member of the Father’s Day Council of Australia due to his work with youth, met Pope Paul VI at the Ecumenical Conference held in Melbourne in 1968, and ultimately was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted, in 1972. Nicholls was also the first Aboriginal to hold high office, when he was elected Governor of South Australia in 1976. However, he served only five months in office before resigning due to poor health.
Nicholls passed away on June 4, 1988, at his home in Mooroopna, Victoria. He was 81 years old and survived by his wife of 39 years, Gladys, in addition to three kids and three step-kids.
A state funeral was widely attended, and a life-size statue of Nicholls was dedicated in 2006 at Parliament Gardens in Melbourne. In addition, Nicholls remains widely influential in sport – the Australian Football League recognizes his achievements every year with the annual Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round, which celebrates the Aboriginal impact on the game of Aussie rules.