Honoring the legacy of Black history and civil rights in Alaska

by Green & Gold News  |   

Black and African American soldiers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September 1942
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)

Black history in Alaska is not widely known and dates back more than a century. Black men and women have played a significant role in shaping our state’s history.

Ian Hartman, associate professor in UAA’s Department of History, published Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest in 2020. What began as a project in 2015 as part of Anchorage’s centennial celebration grew into a book aiming to center the voices and experiences of Black men and women who have lived and worked in Alaska long before statehood and continue to contribute to the future of our state.

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and Alaska Civil Rights Day, we chatted about the importance of honoring Black History in Alaska with Dr. Hartman.

Q: Black history is not as widely-known in our state as some other regions of the United States; where does Black history fit into our state’s comprehensive history? 

A: Black history IS Alaska history. The challenges that Alaska’s Black population has overcome and the opportunities they have seized reflect the rich diversity of experiences that define Alaska’s history. 

Q: When we think of Black history in our state, we tend to think of more recent history, most notably the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II, but there are other significant contributions Black men and women gave our state during that same period, can you talk about that?

Alaska’s Black history generally maps onto the broader history of exploration and settlement in the North Pacific. Black whalers first entered Alaska’s waters and shores in the mid-to-late 19th century. Black soldiers helped to maintain peace and order during the Gold Rush era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Black prospectors, stampeders and entrepreneurs have shaped the culture and economy of Alaska throughout the past century. 

Q: When discussing Civil Rights in Alaska, many of our state’s underrepresented populations have had to advocate for their culture and voice; how did Black men and women contribute to this social movement?

Black Alaskans have been central actors in the movement for civil rights and consistent voices for equality. Since the 1950s and ’60s, Black men and women have mobilized in places like Anchorage and Fairbanks and smaller communities to ensure equal access to good jobs and public services and accommodations. This work continues into the present day with the racial justice movements that continue to shape our contemporary politics. 

Q: Originally, your book began as a small project, but you realized there was a broader story to tell. Are you still working with leaders in the Black community to continue helping to tell their history in our state?

Yes. The work is really never fully complete. Our community elders have stories to share that will redefine how we interpret our history. My goal has always been to work with folks to ensure those stories are told and accessible for future generations to learn from and pass along.

Q: As a university community, what can we do individually to recognize the vibrant history of Black Alaskans?

Get involved! Be aware that the struggle for racial justice and equal opportunity is ongoing. The civil rights movement, as one example, doesn’t just live in history books. It occurs daily in our communities, on our streets, in boardrooms and in politics, be they at the local, state and federal level. Learn how this history is connected to our present.  

Q: Where can we learn more about Black history in our state?

Connect with people in the community who have lived this history and have stories and experiences to share. Listen to activists who are on the front lines of social change. Visit the archives at UAA and the Anchorage Museum and spend time with records and collections that document Black history directly from those who shaped it. Be willing to learn from those outside your direct social circle. Better yet, widen your social circle and listen intently to those with different life experiences from your own. 

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