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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Politicians
Ernest Gruening, "Father of Alaska Statehood"
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Ernest Gruening (pronounced "Greening") was a man who wore many hats in his lifetime: from WWI soldier to physician to journalist. He next worked his way into politics, eventually gaining the presidential appointment as territorial governor of Alaska, and onward to a prestigious seat in the U.S. Senate. Gruening fought hard for Alaska to become the 49th state, and eventually became known as the "Father of Alaska Statehood."

Gruening was born in New York City on February 6, 1887. His father, Emil Gruening, was a famous physician, and hoped that his only son would follow in his footsteps. The young Gruening graduated from Harvard University in 1907, and five years later from Harvard Medical School. However, his passion was in social and political development and he longed to become a journalist. Shortly after his graduation from medical school, Gruening took a job as a reporter for the Boston American, then the Boston Evening Herald as an editorial writer from 1912 to 1913.

He continued to develop his journalism career and went on to become an editor, working simultaneously for both the Boston Evening Traveler and the New York Tribune during a four-year period. After serving in World War I, Gruening returned to New York, and from 1920 to 1923 served as editor of The Nation. He edited the New York Post from 1932 to 1933. Throughout his journalism career, Gruening fought for the cause of labor and for minorities. Eventually, his crusade began to include fighting for rights for territories and possessions of the United States.

Gruening's interests began to sway more toward politics. He was intrigued by the politics surrounding the New Deal and wanted to be part of the action. In 1933, he was appointed to the U.S. delegation to the 7th Inter-American Conference in Montevideo, Chile. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Gruening Director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions within the Department of the Interior. During his years as director, he also served as administrator of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration.

Gruening eventually made his way to Alaska in 1938, when he served on the Alaska International Highway Commission. By 1939, he was appointed territorial governor of Alaska by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a position in which he served until 1953. While governor, Gruening fought for Alaska statehood along with the protection and utilization of the territory's resources.

As governor, Gruening also worked hard for the equality of the Native people. He worked alongside the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) to combat the gross discrimination against Natives. Tlingit leader Roy Peratrovich, former superintendent for the Anchorage Bureau of Indian Affairs, recalled those times during a 1974 interview with the Anchorage Daily News: "I remember in 1941, when I moved back to Juneau to serve my second term with the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). I was shocked to see signs in store windows saying, 'No Natives Allowed,' or even 'No Natives or Dogs Allowed.'"

The scorned Natives and the ANB petitioned the governor to do something for Native civil rights. Gruening, along with representatives of the ANB, personally visited each business, to no avail. The problem only worsened. Gruening did not back down. Rather, he and Peratrovich, along with Elizabeth Peratrovich, strategized with Gruening's friend and political ally, Anthony Dimond, Alaska's non-voting representative in the U.S. House. Together they worked to draft a bill enabling not just Natives, but all minorities, to have the same civil rights as white citizens. The bill was first introduced to state legislature in 1943 and was defeated. However, two years later and with the election of three ANB members to the state legislature, the bill was passed. Equal rights among all people was the law in Alaska.

Three decades later, Peratrovich looked back: "I understand that bill is still the best in the United States. It was 20 years ahead of its time. Not only the Indian people but all minorities owe a great debt to Ernest Gruening."

In 1950, a bill for Alaska Statehood passed the House by a 40-vote margin but was stifled in committee hearings by the Senate; however, this did not slow down the determined men pushing for statehood. Gruening, along with Bob Bartlett, the territory's congressional delegate, continued to speak in favor of statehood, seeking the support of the people of both Alaska and the Lower 48. Alaskans responded with the 1955 Constitutional Convention and elected a "Tennessee Plan" delegation to Congress. During this time, Gruening was elected to the U. S. Senate from the Territory of Alaska; however, because Alaska was not a state, he received no senatorial privileges. In the Tennessee Plan, Gruening and William Egan were the Senators-elect, and Ralph Rivers was Representative-elect. In 1956, the three men engaged in a cross-country lobbying tour, driving to Washington and stumping for statehood as they approached the nation's capital.

In April 1958, both houses of Congress passed a resolution of statehood for Alaska. Although statehood was still pending, Alaskans elected Gruening, a Democrat, to the U.S. Senate the same year.

Gruening's dream was finally realized with the admission of Alaska into the United States on January 3, 1959, when President Eisenhower signed the bill into law. During the time he was fighting for Alaska, Gruening had been urging statehood for Hawaii as well. Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state on August 21, 1959, just months after Alaska's entrance.

Gruening's official four-year term as U.S. Senator began with statehood, and he was reelected in 1962. Gruening served in the Senate until January 3, 1969, ending with the loss of the 1968 election to fellow Democrat Mike Gravel.

Although Gruening lost the election, his involvement in politics did not end. Up until his death in 1974, he worked as a legislative consultant and president of an investment firm. Nor did his love of writing cease -- Gruening wrote and edited many books, on subjects ranging from politics to the history of Alaska to his own autobiography. He died June 26, 1974, in Washington D.C. Afterward, Gruening's cremated remains were sprinkled over Mount Ernest Gruening, located north of Juneau. In 1977, Alaska donated a statue of Gruening to be placed in Washington, D.C.'s National Statuary Hall Collection.

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Gallery of Images
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Phebe Gruening posed with her infant son, Ernest
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Gruening served in the U.S. Army during World War I
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Gruening at his desk in Haiti
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Gruening completed the requirements for his M.D.
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Four great figures in Alaska history gather for a University of Alaska commencement
Click here for all 16 photos in this gallery.

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