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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!