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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One thought on “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

  1. anastasia

    Nice work, Janey!

    While E.P. was a spokesperson regarding anti-discrimination, and helped push for the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, I am not certain she was responsible for it. Also, here you say:

    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”.

    I think it is more accurate to say racial discrimination toward non-whites rather than on behalf of. Also, what is your source for “No Natives Allowed” photographs? People have been looking for the “No natives no dogs” sign, with no luck. Also, that newspaper article is the only evidence of the speech E.P. made that we know of here at the SLAM.

    Again, nice work and thanks for your timely post! Anastasia

    [cid:image001.png@01D4C480.1EABCAA0]

    Anastasia Tarmann
    Historical Collections Librarian
    Alaska National Digital Newspaper Program Director
    phone: 907.465.2924

    Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building
    Mail: PO Box 110571, Juneau, AK 99811
    Visit: 395 Whittier St., Juneau, AK 99801

    Like

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