Honoring Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich Speech; film shows Feb. 16

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Film: "For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska"

Film followed by a panel discussion
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
Wendy Williamson Auditorium

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While serving in the Alaska State Legislature, in 1988, UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer sponsored in the House and Jim Duncan sponsored in the Senate, a bill to create Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Chancellor Ulmer also recommended that one of the two House Galleries, where the public sits and listens to the session, be named after Elizabeth Peratrovich, which it was. This is the speech which then Alaska State Representative Ulmer gave the day the House accepted that suggestion.

Alaska State Legislature, House of Representatives

Representative Fran Ulmer, Honoring Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich

May 1, 1992

Elizabeth PeratrovichForty-seven years ago, Elizabeth Peratrovich championed the cause of civil rights in Alaska and silenced the voices of prejudice and discrimination.

It was February, 1945. The Territorial Senate met as a Committee of the Whole to discuss the equal rights issue and a bill prohibiting racial discrimination in Alaska.

The bill was assailed as a "lawyer's dream" which would create hard feelings between Natives and whites. Many senators stood in turn to speak against equal rights. Their arguments are, by now, familiar ones in this country.

-- They said the bill would aggravate the already hard feelings between Natives and whites.

-- They said the bill was unnecessary -- that Natives had made great progress in the 10 centuries since contact with white civilization.

-- They said the real answer was in the separation of the races.

Those are the ideas we have come to recognize in the last 20 years as the public face of private injustice. The opponents of racial equality have always refused to recognize the problem. Refused to recognize the injury done. Refused to recognize the jobs lost, the poverty incurred, the blows to self-esteem sustained every day by those who have done nothing to merit such injury.

Those voices of prejudice were reduced to a whisper, 47 years ago, by a woman who spoke from the heart.

According to the legislative custom of the time, an opportunity was offered to anyone present who wished to speak on the bill. Elizabeth Peratrovich was the final speaker on that day in 1945. After the long speeches and logical arguments were over, Elizabeth rose to tell the truth about prejudice.

"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."

She talked about herself, her friends, her children, and the cruel treatment that consigned Alaska Natives to a second class existence.

She described to the Senate what it means to be unable to buy a house in a decent neighborhood because Natives aren't allowed to live there.

She described how children feel when they are refused entrance into movie theaters, or see signs in shop windows that read "No dogs or Natives allowed."

She closed her testimony with a biting condemnation of the "Super race" attitude responsible for such cruelty. Following her speech, there was a wild burst of applause from the Gallery, and the Senate proceeded to pass the Alaska Civil Rights Act by a vote of 11-5.

On that day in 1945, Elizabeth Peratrovich represented her people as the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. She was a champion of Alaska Natives and of all people who suffered from discrimination.

In the 33 years since Alaska statehood, we have had too few women and minorities elected to office. But their presence has been felt, just as Elizabeth Peratrovich's presence was felt that day in 1945. In naming Gallery B for Elizabeth, we honor her today for her vision, her wisdom, and her courage in speaking out for what she believed to be right. She symbolizes the role the gallery plays in the legislature and the importance of public opinion in the legislative process. She reminds us that a single person, speaking from the heart, can affect the future of all Alaskans.

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