Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

Elizabeth Peratrovich

From the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, a portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich

Each year on February 16, Alaska honors activist and civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Peratrovich. Peratrovich is responsible for the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945,  a statute that guaranteed equal accommodations throughout the state. It is the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

Since the arrival of Russian fur traders and the influx of white gold miners from the Lower 48, instances of racial discrimination on behalf of non-whites occurred with alarming frequency. Places of business openly discriminated against Alaska Natives and frequently placed “No Natives Allowed” signs in shop windows, or requested “White Help Only”.

Front Street 1908

Image credit: From the Winter and Pond Photographs Collection circa 1908 as part of Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

In 1944, a high school-aged girl named Alberta Schenck worked at the Alaska Dream Theater in Nome as an usher. Her job was to help uphold the status quo by making sure nonwhite patrons did not sit in segregated seats reserved for white theater-goers. When she complained to the theater manager about the racial inequality, she was fired.  In response, Ms. Schenck wrote an editorial in the Nome Nugget.

Nome Nugget, Friday, March 3, 1944 Communications, Page 3 TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: This is a long story, but will have to make it brief as possible. It concerns race between natives, breeds, and whites. I believe we Americans and also our Allies are fighting for the purpose of freedom. Many of our early ancestors fought for the very same purpose, so their children, and children's children, etc., would be free. I myself am part Eskimo and part Irish and so are many others. I only truthfully know that I am one of God's children regardless of race, color, or creed. You and I or anyone else is not to blame what we are. But we are all proud to be what God has made us. Why was it that Thomas Jefferson and his men signed the Declaration of Independence? You or I know for certain that they did not fight and had thousands injured and killed for nothing. It has been known and said through centuries that all American citizens have the right to go, do, and say what they please. What has hurt us constantly is that we are not able to go to a public theater and sit where we wish, but yet we pay the SAME as anyone else and our money is GLADLY received. We are not allowed even to go to public doings, only when money is concerned for the benefit of so-called society people of our city. These human beings who think they are in a higher standard than others admit that they are citizens of America, but the majority are not loyal to what is written in the Constitution. Every so often the Red Cross donations are contributed by all the people regardless who they are, for the aid of foreign countries surrounding America. We gladly offer and give help to those in need but when Red Cross social entertainments are given, we are entirely left out. It looks as though we are not good enough to be invited. Before war was declared there were supposingly American people here in our city that were not even citizens of America. They evidently were the ones keeping us from attending social entertainments and complaining to where we should sit in a theatre, because of being natives and part natives. In other parts of Alaska all people are treated equally. Seemingly Nome is the only town in Alaska treating natives, and breeds as outcasts. These people trying to be so-called society people, are only following the steps of Hitlerism. Alberta Schenck

Image credit: from the March 3, 1944 issue of the Nome Nugget.

Ms. Schenck later returned to the theater with a white date and sat in the whites-only section, only to be asked to leave her seat. She refused, and was arrested. The local Inupiat community staged a protest outside the jail where she was released the next day.

The treatment of Alberta Schenck was a rallying cry toward a bill of rights that guaranteed equal treatment of Alaska Native individuals under the law.

The following article describes the events of February 5, 1945 with a debate on the floor of the Alaska Territorial Senate regarding the “Equal rights” bill, House bill 14. Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich testify about conditions in Alaska, along with statements from several Senators.

THE DAILY ALASKA EMPIRE Tuesday, February 6, 1945 SUPERIOR RACE THEORY HIT IN HEARING Native Sisterhood President Hits at Rights Bill Opposition Opposition that had appeared to speak with a strong voice was forced to a defensive whisper at the close of yesterday's Senate hearing on the "Equal Rights" issue. Mrs. Roy Peratrovich, Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the last speaker to testify, climaxed the hearing by wringing volleying applause from the galleries and Senate floor alike, with a biting condemnation of the "super race" attitude. Reciting instances of discrimination suffered by herself and friends, she cried out against a condition that forces the finest of her race to associate with "white trash." Answering the oft-voiced question, "will this law eliminate discrimination," Mrs. Peratrovich admitted that it would not; but, she queried in rebuttal, "do your laws against larceny and even murder eliminate 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, she said. Opposition Declaring their opposition to the law, unless it is amended, senators Scott, Whaley, Collins and Shattuck spoke their feelings on the issue during the two hours of discussion; while Senators Walker and Cochran held forth in favor of the law. Senator Joe Green was chairman for the Committee of the Whole hearing. Senator Allen Shattuck opened the discussion by repeating a statement he declared he had already made to Roy Peratrovich, Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. "This bill will aggravate, rather than allay the little feeling that now exists," he stated. "Our native cultures have 10 centuries of white civilization to encompass in a few decades. I believe that considerable progress has been made; particularly in the last 50 years," Senator Shattuck declared. ANB President Talks Peratrovich was then asked to the stand by Senator N.R. Walker and following questions that established his education, background, and right to speak for the Indians, Peratrovich was invited to express his views on the question before the Senate. He pointed out that Gov. Ernest Gruening, in his report to the Secretary of the Interior, as well as in his message to the Legislature, had recognized the existence of discrimination. He quoted the plank adopted by the Democratic Party as its Fairbanks convention, which favored action on the natives' behalf. Reading the names of the members of the committee that helped frame that plank, he pointed out that among than were members of the present Senate body. "Only an Indian can know how it feels to be discriminated against," Peratrovich said. "Either you are for discrimination or you are against it," accordingly as you vote on this bill, he added. Has Amendment Declaring that he had an amendment to propose to the measure, Senator Frank Whaley read a lengthy prepared address to the assembly; in which he labeled the measure a "lawyer's dream" and a "natural in creating hard feeling between whites and natives." He stated his flying experience in many parts of Alaska as authority behind his the opinion he had reached. Declaring himself "personally assailed" by Senator Whaley in his remarks, Senator O.D. Cochran raised his voice for the bill, offering instances of discrimination which came, he declared, from a list of similar occurrences in his own knowledge that would occupy the full afternoon to relate. As in his speech on the matter before the House, Senator Cochran made use of a theater in Nome as a prime example of an establishment where discrimination is practiced. Senator Walker supported Senator Cochran's views, declaring that he knew no instance where a native had died of a broken heart, but added that he did know of situations where discrimination had forced Indian women into living lives "worse that death." Scott Talks Senator Tolbert Scott, in one of his rare participations in debate, spoke from the heart his feeling that the bill, as it stood, would not accomplish the purpose intended. "Mixed-breeds," he declared, are the source of the trouble. It is only they who wish to associate with the whites. "It would have been far better had the Eskimos put up signs 'No Whites Allowed'," he said. He stated his belief that the issue was being raised to create political capital for some legislators, and concluded that "white women have done their part" in keeping the races distinct; if white men had done as well, there would be no racial feeling in Alaska. Liquor Problem Speaking from his long experience, among Eskimo peoples in particular, Senator Grenold Collins furnished a sincere and authoritative voice in opposition to the bill. He supported Senator Scott's contention regarding mixed breeds by citing the well-being of the Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island, where white men have not worked their evil. "Eskimos are not an inferior race," he stated, "but they are an individual race." The pure Eskimos are proud of their origin and are aware that harm comes to them from mixing with whites. It is the mixed breed who is not accepted by either race who causes the trouble. Declaring, "I believe in racial pride" and do not think this bill will do other than arouse bitterness, Senator Collins lashed out at the sale of liquor to natives, as the root of trouble. A motion to report progress, offered by Senator Walker, was approved, following the testimony of Mrs. Peratrovich, which terminated the discussion.

Image description: From the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, article from the February 6, 1945 issue of the Daily Alaska Empire.

Roy Peratrovich, Elizabeth’s husband, stated that “only an Indian can know how it feels to be discriminated against. Either you are for discrimination or you are against it” with regards to a vote on the bill.

Gruening signs anti-discrimination act

Image credit: From the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Governor Gruening (seated) signs the anti-discrimination act of 1945. Witnessing are (left to right) O. D. Cochran, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Edward Anderson, Norman Walker, and Roy Peratrovich.

While Alaska’s Anti-discrimination act preceded any American civil rights legislation by a good 20 years, acts of racial discrimination continued, as it continues to this day. Yet Elizabeth Peratrovich’s efforts are to be applauded for paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement in the Lower 48, for speaking out against racial discrimination, and standing up for basic human decency. In response to an earlier comment by a territorial senator who asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us” she famously stated:

“I would not have expected,” she said “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 of Rights.”

The Alaska Legislature under Governor Steve Cowper first recognized Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on February 16, 1988, and schools throughout the state of Alaska have taught students about this civil rights pioneer. It’s about time the rest of the country honors her, too.

Gunałchéesh, Elizabeth Peratrovich!

Photograph in color of Ed Thomas of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), Dorothy McKinley of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), Roy Peratrovich, Governor Steve Cowper (seated, signing the bill), George Miyasato, and Richard Stitt of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). The Alaska state seal is on the wall behind them

Image credit: From the Alaska State Archives, Governor Steve Cowper signs the bill that created Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, Juneau, May 26, 1988. Left to right: Ed Thomas of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), Dorothy McKinley of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), Roy Peratrovich, Governor Steve Cowper (seated), George Miyasato, and Richard Stitt of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB).

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Library Lovers’ Month

Everybody Wants a Free Public Library, Music and Art, and Can Have Easily a Fine Exhibit of Minerals and Curios; The Cordova Daily Times (Member of the Associated Press) Vol. 7 No. 91; Cordova, Alaska, Tuesday, March 21, 1922; Price Ten Cents

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 21 March 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-03-21/ed-1/seq-1/>

February marks Library Appreciation Month, an appropriate designation given that this project is based out of the Alaska State Library!

Although it’s easy to take public libraries for granted, several news items from the Cordova Daily Times point to the general public’s desire for not only books, but music and art and “a Fine Exhibit of Minerals and Curios” to establish a municipal art museum.

All Seem To Want Library: Proposal Evokes Many Ideas for Good of the Community. All Cordovans seem to want action immediately by the Literacy Club, which meets tomorrow night, toward establishing the nucleus of a free public library. One of the Club members said today the proposal would be given attention. If the Club backs the movement, as expected, donations of books will be in order, likewise paintings for decoration-- as a start for the city's museum of fine arts. A commodious room downtown can be obtained, it is said, well adapted to the purpose. No definite plans have been attempted, this being left for the Literary Club, but it has been suggested that the librarian at first be a volunteer, who would attend and give out books at certain hours, daily. After awhile a regular librarian could be employed and open house be kept continually. Another suggestion is that a phonograph be obtained, together with the best grand opera and other music records, so that musical entertainments could be given in the evenings, free to everybody. The idea is to announce the program of these entertainments in The Times. In this way everybody could have the pleasure of hearing the best music and at the same time look over the book supply. Several prominent citizens already have said they know of many persons who would be glad to donate books for such a purpose; others know where paintings and other works of art might be found, for the asking.

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 20 March 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-03-20/ed-1/seq-8/>

Even today with a steadfast Interlibrary Loan system to connect libraries within the state of Alaska, materials can take several weeks to arrive based on the sheer distance needed to travel. Imagine not even having an established collection of books to browse through on cold, dark, winter nights- or having any means of obtaining books.

For many citizens of Cordova, a library represented a cultural outlet missing from their town. A library also represented the comforts of home and a gathering place for friends. The Cordova public school library was the only library in town, and its borrowing privileges were reserved for school children only.

Notice: The Cordova public school library will be open Friday from 2 to 3 p.m. for the children of the school who wish to take out library books. Leona Churchill, Librarian.

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 13 June 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1918-06-13/ed-1/seq-8/>

This lack of a larger institution is laid bare in this article for an upcoming “tag sale” to benefit the Cordova public school library:

Tag Sale For Library Fund On Saturday: Next Saturday is the annual tag day for the Cordova public school library, when the public will be asked to play a game of tag with the children. In this particular kind of tag game it is proper for the participants to allow themselves to be tagged just as soon and as often as possible. It is to be hoped that everyone plays the game as well as it was played last year. This tag day sale is for the benefit of the school library, which needs to be built up to a higher point of efficiency, since it must serve in a double capacity, due to the fact that Cordova can boast of no public library at present. Some time, not too far away, let us hope, Cordova will have a public library, but until that time is it not wise to increase the scope and general usefulness of our school library, so that it may in a measure stone for the lack of a larger institution? "Have a heart" is in this case a genuine appeal for each to help by buying one of the heart-shaped tags-- no slang intended. Tag! You're it!

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 19 Feb. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1920-02-19/ed-1/seq-8/>

By 1920, however, the Cordova public school library opened its doors to the general public:

Notice to the Public: As Cordova has no public library, it has been decided to open the school library for general use. Hereafter anyone who cares to take out books will be welcome to do so on Wednesdays from 3 to 4 p.m. Books must be returned the following Wednesday or the borrower will be subject to a fine of 5 cents a day until they are returned. To cover possible loss or damage, a deposit of $1 will be required from those having no connection with the school, the same to be returned at the close of the school year. Our library has grown from 264 volumes to over a thousand in number, and while many of our books are juvenile, there are also many that will interest adults. Alice Daggett will have charge of this branch of the loan work, and borrowers will see her when wishing to borrow or return books.

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 31 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1920-01-31/ed-1/seq-6/>

Newspapers all throughout Alaska picked up on the public outcry for a library in Cordova and spread the word to readers near and far.

Cordova Wants Museum of Fine Arts and Also a Good Public Library: There is a lively local sentiment in favor of the establishment of a public library in Cordova this year-- at least the beginning of one Rev. Eustance P. Ziegler, in reply to an inquiry, said he believed the people were earnestly desirous of having not only a good public library, together with all the leading magazines, but also a museum of fine arts to which he would be pleased to contribute. It is also believed that Sydney Laurence and other artists would be glad to contribute. Some constructive action along this line many be expected soon. Mr. Ziegler said these questions which probably would be taken up by the Literary Club, through the initiative of one of its live-wire members. A little further inquiry elicited the apparent consensus of opinion that the Alaska Pioneer Spirit, which is very active here, would not favor obtaining a library by endowment, or Carnegie fund, nor by charitable donation of any kind. To the contrary, it was said, the modest beginning could be made this year and additions be provided as fast as means allow. The idea seems to be to keep the city independent in this respect, free from debt and self-reliant.--Cordova Times.

Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 08 April 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.<https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1922-04-08/ed-1/seq-4/>

In June of 1925, women’s guild of St. George’s Episcopal Church opened the reading room of the Red Dragon, a historical building, as the very first location of the Cordova Public Library. Books donated by Episcopalian churches throughout the Lower 48 formed the collection- which formed an eclectic mix of titles!

Library in Red Dragon to be Thrown Open to Public: Launching a movement to eventually secure an adequate library for Cordova, The Women's Guild of St. George's Episcopal Church has arranged to throw open to the public the book collection now housed in the Red Dragon. Beginning Saturday the club building will be open from 1 to 7 p.m. and people may call there to read or borrow books. It will continue open between these hours each Wednesday and Saturday. Under the supervision of Mrs. F. A. Hansen and Miss Elsie Waltz, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order and can be readily located on the shelves. About 700 volumes are now in the building, as well as a number which have been borrowed from the Red Dragon in the past. It has been requested that all persons having books from there return them as soon as possible, so that the shelves may not be too rapidly depleted. The books now on hand have been sent here from Episcopalian churches all over the United States. The range of materials is large, for the contributors seem to be in doubt as to just what the taste of Alaskans runs to. In the same book case you may find treaties on "Success with Small fruits," "Intestinal Ills" and "Manhood Wrecked and Rescued." Fiction is relatively scarce, although there are several set including works of George Eliot, Bret Harte and the like. There are recent volumes by Kathleen Norris, Rex Besch, Harold Bell Wright, Booth Tarkington, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Jeffrey Faruol, Ralph Connor, William Allen White, Somerset Maugham and many others. Even the old-time paper-backed novel is there and you may take your choice of "The Fatal Marriage," "'Twas Love's Fault" or "Vivian, the Beauty," the first chapter of which opens with the line: "'He loves me,' murmured Jeanne." Another enticing and much thumbed book is entitled "The Romance of a Poor Young Man." If you have some books you don't know what to do with, the library can find a use for them. An appeal is to be sent out to those in the States who have hitherto contributed, telling how much entertaining books of fiction and on modern progress mean when people live so far from book stores and municipal libraries. A reading table will be arranged with late issues of current magazines. A number of sets of these best magazines, covering twelve month periods are also to be found there. Another book case is devoted to a quantity of juvenile books.

Image credit: From the June 11, 1925 issue of the Cordova Daily Times, Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

More Books Given to Red Dragon Library: With the increasing interest being shown in the library recently opened at the Red Dragon by the Women's Guild of St. George's Church, several books have just been donated by local residents. The gifts are from Mrs. Brady Howard, Mrs. Lew Smith, Mrs. C. P. Mickelson and Mrs. D. F. Cook. Persons who have had volumes from the Red Dragon in their homes for a long time are urgently requested to return them, as the demand for the books is growing constantly and it is also desired that the stray property of the library be cataloged. Among the new fiction recently placed on the shelves are the following: "Scaramouche," by Rafael Sabatini. "The Desert of Wheat," by Zane Grey. "Cap'n Dan's Daughter," by Joseph C. Lincoln. "Back Home," by Irvin S. Cobb. "Galusha the Magnificent," by Joseph C. Lincoln. The library will be open again on Saturday from 1 to 7 p.m.

Image credit: From the June 25, 1925 issue of the Cordova Daily Times, Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Today, the Cordova Public Library has found a permanent home at the Cordova Center, after having its collection housed in the Adams Building and the Windsor Hotel. We are fortunate to have had this journey toward a free public library documented in the Cordova Daily Times.

For more information, see http://www.cordovalibrary.org/ and https://reddragoncordova.org/