By Caroleine James
Wrangell Sentinel 

Alaskans celebrate Native civil rights advocate Elizabeth Peratrovich

 

February 15, 2023 | View PDF

Amy Lou Blood, of Ordway's; courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

Alaska Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening (seated) signs the anti-discrimination act on Feb. 16, 1945, in Juneau, as Elizabeth Peratrovich stands by, along with (from left) Sen. O. D. Cochran, Rep. Edward Anderson, Sen. Norman Walker and her husband, Roy Peratrovich.

On Thursday, Alaskans will celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day to honor the Tlingit civil rights advocate who pushed for the nation's first anti-discrimination law, 19 years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. During her lifelong campaign for Native rights, she fought segregation and a majority white territorial Legislature to establish a foundation of legal protections that have benefitted Alaskans since 1945.

Peratrovich was born in segregated Petersburg on July 4, 1911. She was a member of the Tlingit Raven moiety and LukaaX.ádi clan. After her parents placed her in the care of The Salvation Army, she was adopted by Mary Wanamaker, a basketweaver, and Andrew Wanamaker, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. She grew up living a subsistence lifestyle in Sitka, then Klawock, then Ketchikan.

Evidence of anti-Native discrimination was commonplace during Peratrovich's youth. Whites barred Tlingit people from attending white-owned schools and entering white-owned businesses. Signs reading "No Natives or Dogs Allowed," and "We Cater to White Trade Only" were posted throughout the small island towns, according to "Fighter in Velvet Gloves," a biography cowritten by her eldest son, Roy Peratrovich Jr.

She attended Ketchikan High School, one of a few integrated institutions in the area thanks to a successful 1929 lawsuit by a Tlingit leader. After school, she returned to Klawock and married Roy Peratrovich in 1931. He was a policeman and postmaster who would later become Klawock's mayor and grand president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

In late 1941, Peratrovich saw a "No Natives Allowed" notice at a hotel in Douglas, a community across Gastineau Channel from downtown Juneau. The United States had just entered World War II and many Alaska Native men had volunteered to serve the country. "The proprietor of Douglas Inn does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing as the white boys to lay down their lives to protect the freedom that he enjoys," the Peratrovichs wrote to territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening. The letter marked the beginning of her campaign for equal rights legislation.

The family moved to Juneau so that they could be more involved in territorial politics and Peratrovich was elected grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. She traveled around Alaska, urging residents to support an anti-discrimination bill that would put an end to state-sanctioned segregation.

In 1943, the bill was introduced to the all-white territorial Legislature and failed on a tie vote. It was reintroduced in 1945, when the legislature had two Alaska Native members. Sen. Allen Shattuck contended that the bill would "aggravate rather than allay" racial conflict, according to Gruening's autobiography.

"Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?" Shattuck asked.

Peratrovich put down her knitting needles - she frequently knitted during legislative sessions - and responded in public testimony" "I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."

According to the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame, senators asked Peratrovich whether an equal rights bill could actually eliminate racial discrimination. She responded: "Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it? 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."

Her testimony turned the tide of the session and hushed hostile senators to a "defensive whisper," according to The Daily Alaska Empire. The Anti-Discrimination Act passed, 11-5.

Peratrovich died of breast cancer at age 47 on Dec. 1, 1958.

In 1988, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper signed legislation naming Elizabeth Peratrovich Day a state holiday to honor her contributions to the anti-discrimination effort. She is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau, next to her husband.

 

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