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Celebrating Black history in Alaska in new book

by Catalina Myers  |   

Photograph of five African-American soldiers who took part in the construction of the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway. (Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks)
In September 1942, 3,500 Black and African American soldiers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building the Southward road of the Alaska Highway into Canada. (Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, regiments from the Buffalo Soldiers arrived in the gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska, to maintain order in the frontier city. It's a little-known piece of Alaska history that Ian Hartman, associate professor and chair of UAA's Department of History, hopes his book, Black History in the Last Frontier, will shed light on.

Black history in Alaska is not widely known. Hartman, along with collaborators within the state's Black community, historians and the Anchorage Museum, have worked to spread the word of the rich and significant contributions that the Black population has made in the 49th state.

Initially what began as a project in 2015 for Anchorage's sentinel celebration, Hartman, along with other historians and notable historian and prominent community member Cal Williams, was asked to contribute a chapter to the book Imagining Anchorage. Six years and hours of interviews later, one chapter grew  into a whole book with the collaborative efforts of UAA, the National Park Service, the Anchorage Museum, the Black community, UAA alum David Reamer, and grants from the Rasmuson and Atwood Foundations.

"One of the best ways someone can meaningfully contribute to the civil discourse of their community is to learn about the history of their region and their community and fully understand the range of contributions that people have made," said Hartman.

The late 1800s to World War II

According to Hartman, some of the earliest records of Black people in Alaska were whalers participating in the Pacific commercial whaling trade in the mid-1800s. During the Alaska Gold Rush, Black soldiers helped maintain law and order in the new territory. From its early years as a town, there are records of Black settlers in Anchorage, most notably Thomas Bevers, the settlement's first paid fire chief. Beavers' role in creating Fur Rendezvous was central to the winter celebration we know and love today. Hartman said Bevers' role in the community was significant and that in addition to his role as the fire chief during the 1920s, he also served on several councils and was one of the first investors in Fur Rendezvous.

Throughout the World War years, Alaska's cities and towns rapidly expanded. The development of the Alaska Highway brought jobs and people. According to Hartman, roughly 40% of the project's workforce building the new highway was Black, constructing stretches of road running from north to south and containing some of the highway’s most treacherous terrain. He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not provide their Black regiments with the power tools and materials they did for their white counterparts to complete the monumental project. Despite the hardships, Hartman said the U.S. Army Corps' Black regiments persisted and completed their portion of the highway's construction in just under a year, compared to the multi-year projection the work had been slated for.

"There's this history of racism within the military that you can unpack, but then, at the same time, it's also a triumphant story, too," said Hartman. "Because it really demonstrates the valor these men displayed in building this road, against all odds."

After World War II, Hartman said many African Americans trekked north to Alaska to work in the construction industry and the military.

Post World War II

"In some ways, once you get into the post World War years, the story of why African Americans are in Alaska is basically the same as why white or anyone who isn't Alaska Native is here," said Hartman. Like many Alaska stories, Hartman explains, they are brought here by jobs or family.

Hartman said he hopes his book will open a dialogue about the essential contributions African Americans have contributed to our state. This will also provide a stepping stone to tell Alaska's more diverse and inclusive history. He hopes that his work and other historians will help shift the historical focus from a "white/Euro-centric frontier history" to include all people, groups and cultures that have contributed to our state's past, present and future.

North to the future

He hopes what began as one chapter in one book but grew to six years of work, hundreds of hours and collaborations with the Alaska and the Cook Inlet Historical Societies, the Rasmuson Foundation and countless interviews with prominent Black elders in the community, that this project will result in collaborative work with the Anchorage Museum and possibly take him on the road.

Hartman said that ultimately the goal of this project — any history project, really — is to understand the context of people and places. He said to understand our current moment, it's crucial to understand the past — in its entirety.

"The bigger project is to start building that history right," said Hartman. "We start with inclusion. This project emphasizes Alaska’s Black community, but ultimately we want to have a history that is deeply inclusive, and that is reflective of the state and of the contributions of everybody."

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