Past mistakes teach us how to treat people better

Society can learn from its mistakes. The more we know, the more likely we will get it right the next time.

Learning about what society did wrong in the past is part of making for a better future.

There are a couple such lessons in the Sentinel this month, one of which will be aired publicly in town next week.

“Blue Ticket,” a video of a 2019 Juneau play, will show at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 15, at the Nolan Center. It tells the story of Juneau police secretly removing gay men from the community, kicking them out with a one-way ferry ticket.

The purge came at a time of nationwide persecution of gays in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly among federal employees, known as the Lavender Scare. Self-appointed vigilantes and government officials suspected gays were communist sympathizers — no proof was required. Unfounded and discriminatory suspicions were enough to cost people their jobs.

“Blue Ticket” depicts how it happened in Juneau and who was caught up in the banishment. It is an opportunity for people in Wrangell to learn more about the political times 60 years ago; to think about why it was wrong; and to remind ourselves that politics can drive people to violate the rights of others.

Thank you to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the Island of Faith Lutheran Church and Community Roots, a Wrangell support group, for bringing the video to town. The event is free; a discussion with the playwright will follow the video.

Going back further in time, Alaska went through an equally disturbing period when about 5,500 people with mental illness or developmental disabilities were shipped to an asylum in Oregon. Their tickets were not one-way, but many never came home, dying far away from their families and friends.

They are known as the Lost Alaskans.

Between 1904 and the early 1960s, the territory of Alaska, and later the young state, lacked a facility to care for the people and lacked the compassion to understand, so the answer was to send them away.

Now, like the “Blue Ticket” play and video, the story of those Lost Alaskans is coming to life through research. Volunteers in Fairbanks and Portland have been working the past 15 years to identify the people sent to the Oregon hospital. Some were buried in unmarked pauper graves in Oregon, but a few have been returned to Alaska for proper burials.

A new database went online in February to help people find if family members were among those sent to Morningside Hospital. The research is essential to reuniting families separated by ignorance over mental health. An Associated Press report in this week’s Sentinel tells the story.

Discrimination and mistreatment of gays and people with mental illness have lessened since the 1960s but still exists. Learning from the past can help us do better.

-- Wrangell Sentinel


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