Black History in the Last Frontier
By Ian C. Hartman. National Park Service/University of Alaska Anchorage. 210 pages. 2020 (Available for free in PDF format)
During the 1880s, William Shorey, commanding the whaler Harriman, sailed the Bering Sea, setting eyes on Alaska, the land America had acquired from Russia two decades earlier. This is hardly remarkable for the time, except that Shorey was the son of freed slaves in Barbados. He was employed in one of the few industries offering decent wages and a measure of freedom for black men in the final decades of 19th century America.
Shorey wasn’t the first black man to reach Alaska, as “Black History in the Last Frontier” tells us. In this very informative book by Ian Hartman, associate professor of history at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, we are told that it was whaling that brought the first black travelers to Alaskan waters. in the 1840s. The fact that whalers off the coast of Alaska carried large percentages of black crew members is largely ignored today, as is almost all of black history in Alaska. This is a huge void in northern scholarship that desperately needs to be filled. This brief book, more of an overview than an exhaustive study, offers a wealth of starting points for young scholars wishing to examine Alaskan history from a position too often overlooked.
“African Americans have traveled in Alaska for over 150 years, long before any statehood and even before the Klondike Gold Rush,” Hartman tells us early on. “Black men and women have actively participated in the politics, economic development and culture of Alaska. They hunted whales, patrolled the seas, built roads, served in the military, opened businesses, fought injustice, won political office and forged communities.
This is the story told by Hartman, beginning with those early whalers and winding through the Gold Rush, the two World Wars, the rapid urbanization of Alaska during the Cold War, the era of civil rights and the new millennium. It is the story of black Americans who migrated to the Far North, finding opportunities often denied elsewhere, but struggling against the same structural racism they had hoped to escape.
Hartman explores this story through the lives of those who lived it, an approach that humanizes the narrative, making it both accessible and enjoyable for casual readers. We learn, for example, of Melvin Dempsey, a former slave who fled the South. He caught gold fever and began working and prospecting westward, eventually arriving in Valdez in 1898. Knowing well the difficulties of mining and the low chances of success, he instead opened a hostel and restaurant serving newcomers and launched a Christian reading room. and society. He later became postmaster, and today the River Dempsey bears his name.
We also meet Zula Swanson, who left Alabama and headed west, reaching Anchorage in 1929. There she built a small empire of licit and illicit businesses, established herself in the city and owned half a million dollars worth of property – $3 million in today’s dollars. – at the time of her death in 1973, a feat that would have been completely unattainable for her in the Jim Crow South.
[Book review: ‘Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska’ explores a little known chapter of Black history in Alaska]
Uncle Sam brought many black people north from Alaska, and some stayed. From when the Buffalo Soldiers provided law enforcement in Skagway during the Gold Rush era, to the construction of the Alaska Highway, and right up to the present day , the military has long been a pipeline for black migration to Alaska. The pipeline itself also brought job-seeking black Americans north, where they experienced both hard-earned success and standard racism. It’s a recurring theme here.
In her exploration of black history in Alaska, Hartman uncovers additions to well-known events, where black Alaskans played key roles since forgotten. For example, a loophole in the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act was revealed when Robert and Beatrice Coleman were refused service at a Fairbanks lounge in 1946. The famous Civil Rights Act, the first of its kind in country, prohibited companies from engaging in discriminatory practices. However, the authors of the bill had made a clerical error. Discrimination remained legal until companies put it in writing. Spoken fonts were not covered. The Legislative Assembly amended the law the following year thanks to the Colemans’ tireless activism. It’s a coda to the story of the work by Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich, which usually ends on the happy note of the bill passing.
This book is replete with such stories, but it also explores the structural issues plaguing black people in Alaska, especially as urban centers grew rapidly after World War II. Black residents of Anchorage were herded into poor neighborhoods that the city ignored. Urban renewal initiatives have resulted in the demolition of black neighborhoods to make way for new roads serving white residents of outlying homes. And despite anti-discrimination laws, companies routinely kept black employees in junior positions.
Along with the rest of the country, black Alaskans began pushing for civil rights in the 1960s, and Hartman shows how that struggle reflected the national movement, with history contrasting with how Alaskans usually view our culture. “In fact,” he wrote, “while Alaskans cheered for a streak of independence and a general disdain for ‘how they do things on the outside’, its history of racial discrimination on the one hand and of mobilization and activism for the civil rights of the other exposes more commonalities with other places than exceptional models of openness.
Through a series of individual stories honoring the work of many black Alaskans, Hartman tells the larger story of the black experience in Alaska. Black history must be known to understand Alaska and American history, and this overview provides a vital launching pad for exploring this part of our shared past. Hopefully, the subject, which is beginning to attract attention, will be developed by many researchers. Hartman himself has a more in-depth academic study to be released later this year, written with Anchorage historian David Reamer. It’s a good start. Meanwhile, a printed copy of “Black History in the Last Frontier” is to be placed in every high school library in Alaska.
A free PDF of “Black History in the Last Frontier” can be obtained from the National Park Service website.