Elizabeth Peratrovich Day: Jim Crow and Civil Rights in Alaska

Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. On February 16th, 1945, 67 years ago today, the Territory of Alaska signed into law the Anti-Discrimination Act, a result of the voice, leadership and actions of Elizabeth Peratrovich and many other Alaska Natives. In the Territorial Senate, it was her testimony that turned legislators to pass this law:
TERRITORY OF ALASKA
Juneau, Alaska  
AN ACT 
To provide for full and equal accommodations, facilities and privileges to all citizens in places of public accommodation within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska; to provide penalties to violations.  
Be it enacted by the Legislature of the Territory of Alaska:  
Section 1: All citizens within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of public inns, restaurants, eating houses, hotels, soda fountains, soft drink parlors, taverns, roadhouses, barber shops, beauty parlors, bathrooms, resthouses, theaters, skating rinks, cafes, ice cream parlors, transportation companies, and all other conveyances and amusements, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens. 
Section 2: Any person who shall violate or aid or incite a violation of said full and equal enjoyment; or any person who shall display any printed or written sign indicating a discrimination on racial grounds of said full and equal enjoyment, for each day for which said sign is displayed shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than thirty (30) days or fined no more than two hundred fifty ($250.00) dollars, or both. Approved February 16, 1945
After reading the text of this act, it should be clear that the law was responding to a very real problem: Jim Crow-style discrimination and segregationist attitudes pointed against Natives, going on in Alaska. Southeast Alaska and its big cities of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka were particular hotspots of discrimination, as the southeast was Alaska's most populated and most densely populated region, home to many whites as well as Natives. World War II brought issues to the fore as well, because while Natives were allowed to become soldiers, their families were denied access to USOs and other amenities, and officers even drove Native girls away if they saw them with white soldiers.

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Problems were not just limited to access to restaurants, movie theaters or dance halls, however; Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband had arranged to lease a house in Juneau, but they were denied as soon as it was discovered they were Native. The racist views of the territorial legislators were surely symptomatic of attitudes across the state, and though the anti-discrimination act passed the house with a clear majority, it was the calm and resounding exhortations of Peratrovich that convinced and shamed the senatorial opposition into doing the right thing.

Wikipedia's article claims that Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act was the first of its kind in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised: This was really a modern and unprecedented action against the sort of casual racism and discrimination practiced by some white Americans - not just in the South, but also in all places where visible minorities could be marginalized and mistreated. In Alaska, this sort of injustice was confronted with legislation an entire nineteen years before the Civil Rights Act was passed for the country as a whole. I believe Alaska's stand really was pioneering.

Alaskan students and all Americans need to be taught much more of their country's history of discrimination. There is so much that I feel ignorant about concerning Native experiences after the American purchase of Alaska, and I think we all have a responsibility to better understand legacies of marginalization in our home communities, wherever they might be and whoever might be involved. When it comes to the actions of Elizabeth Peratrovich and all others who fought in battles for equality, however, this is history that Alaskans and Americans should be proud of.

Sources: See here for great collection of information.

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