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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Lives and Traditions
The Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act - 1945
By Elizabeth James

Alaska Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening signed the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Bill on February 16, 1945, with Elizabeth Peratrovich of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, among others, standing behind him.  The photograph of this event is nearly iconic in Alaska history.  The signing is clearly a formal and somber affair, but Peratrovich's slight smile reveals something of the legislation's significance.  The presence of a Tlingit woman in a high-profile political event of the era suggests even more.  Indeed, Peratrovich stands closer to the governor than any of the legislators surrounding him, including her husband.  She clearly had a critical interest in the signing.

During the early twentieth century, Alaska Natives often suffered segregation and racism similar to that faced by African-Americans in southern states.  Businesses routinely posted signs prohibiting Natives from entering the establishment with a distinct "No Natives" statement.  Other places established separate "white" and "Native" sections.  The proprietor of a Juneau restaurant posted a sign reversing the message and creating an advertisement to attract white customers: it read "All White Help." 

Gruening, who served as Alaska territorial governor from 1939 to 1953, was known for his anti-discrimination stance.  Gruening disliked such signs and was known to personally confront storeowners who posted them.  Although he pushed the Anti-Discrimination Bill in the territorial legislature twice (it first failed in 1943), Peratrovich and another Native woman, Alberta Schenck, earned fame for their respective roles in bringing attention and support to the Anti-Discrimination Bill.

On the far western side of the state, Alberta Schenck was only seventeen years old when she raised the issue of racist practices in her hometown of Nome.   She submitted a letter to the local Nome Nugget newspaper challenging segregation policies in the town.  While the country was in the midst of World War II, Schenck compared discrimination against Natives to "Hitlerism."  Numerous businesses and services in Nome practiced segregation, just as happened throughout Alaska.  Soldiers stationed in Nome during the war sometimes enjoyed USO shows or dances put on by the community.  Native women, however, were not allowed to join the USO or attend these popular events, even though their male relatives might be serving in the military or in the Territorial Guard.

In her letter to the Nome Nugget, Alberta Schenck suggested Nome's segregation practices were unique, but they were not.  Segregation and discrimination occurred throughout the state.  Unangan people relocated from the Aleutian Islands to Funter Bay in southeast Alaska during World War II, for example, saw the separate barracks for white employees at the hospital.  The building physically and unmistakably attested to the policy of segregation, although it may not have needed an actual sign prohibiting Native (or non-white) residence.  Discrimination did not always have such a visual representation.  Whether manifested as physical separation, legal distinctions, or in human thought and actions, overt discrimination was common in Alaska before 1945. 

As an Inupiat, Schenck experienced prejudice herself.  But she had also been charged with enforcing segregation policies at the Dream Theater in Nome, were she had previously been employed.  As an usher, it was her job to enforce the separate seating arrangements.  Not long after the Nome Nugget published her letter, Schenck attended a show at the same theater and sat in the white section.  When asked to move, she refused.  For her defiance, she was arrested and spent the night in jail.  Her letter aroused local controversy; after her arrest, encouraged by Territorial Guard organizer Marvin Marston, Schenck wrote directly to Governor Gruening about her experiences. 

Gruening was about to repeat his endorsement of an anti-discrimination bill after the first one had failed in 1943.   Schenck's role in the political process when the bill came forward in 1945 is demonstrated by the bill's progression through the legislature.  In the House, Edward Anderson introduced the bill.  Anderson had been mayor of Nome when Schenck was arrested.  In the Senate, Schenck's lawyer O.D. Cochran had the honor of introducing the bill.  Both Anderson and Cochran are included in the bill signing photograph. 

In Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) had long been active on behalf of Native rights by 1945, including protests against discriminatory business signs.  Elizabeth Peratrovich served as ANS Grand President, and her husband Roy Peratrovich, also Tlingit, served as the ANB's Grand President.  Roy Peratrovich was also elected to the territorial legislature in 1944.  When the Anti-Discrimination bill came to the legislature for the second time, both were prepared to help usher the legislation through to the end.

The bill passed easily in the House but stalled in the Senate with heated debate.  Elizabeth Peratrovich waited in the gallery listening to the arguments.  After two hours, she asked to speak.  She opened her comments by referring to an earlier comment from an opponent and stated, "I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill or Rights."  She went on to describe the blatant discrimination she and her husband and children faced in housing and education in Juneau.  When a senator noted that a civil rights act would not end discrimination against Alaska Natives, she countered his statement with her own question and response: "Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination."

Applause broke out through the chamber, and the Anti-Discrimination Bill later passed the Senate by an 11-5 vote.   In reporting the Senate's debates, the Juneau Daily Alaska Empire described Peratrovich's testimony as "a biting condemnation of the ‘super race' attitude."  Few could argue with her statements;  her testimony was regarded as instrumental in gaining the winning votes in the Senate.  In honor of her commitment and her actions, Alaska now observes February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

As Elizabeth Peratrovich indicated, the existence of a law would not prevent or eliminate prejudice.  But passing the bill represented an important step forward, and one that brought Natives closer to political and social civil rights in Alaska.  Peratrovich and Schenck each brought attention to their intimate perspectives and demonstrate the impact that a single person can have on society and history.

For further reading:

Cole, Terence.  "Jim Crow in Alaska:  The Passage of the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945."  In An Alaska Anthology:  Interpreting the Past, ed. Stephen Haycox and Mary Childers Mangusso, 314-335.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1996.

For the Rights of All:  Ending Jim Crow in Alaska.  Prod. Jeffry Lloyd Silverman.  Blueberry Productions, Public Broadcasting Service.  November 2009.  Television.  (See www.alaskacivilrights.org/ )

"Jim Crow in Alaska."  www.alaskool.org/projects/JimCrow/Jimcrow.htm

"A Recollection of Civil Rights Leader Elizabeth Peratrovich 1911-1958."   www.alaskool.org/projects/native_gov/recollections/peratrovich/Elizabeth_1.htm

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Gallery of Images
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Governor Gruening signs the Anti-Discrimination Act, 1945
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Example of anti-Native discrimination in Juneau
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Air Transport Command Dance in Nome, 1945
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Main Street, Nome, Alaska
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Alberta Schenck's letter to the Nome Nugget, March 3, 1944
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About the Author: Dr. Elizabeth James is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her specialty is American Indian history. Dr. James has published several articles on allotment and community responses to federal policy in Nez Perce country in Idaho. She has begun to explore issues in Alaska Native history, in particular twentieth century political developments. She is currently investigating the historical role of the Native newspaper, Tundra Times, in the state of Alaska.
 

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