Alaska Civil Rights Pioneer
By DAVE KIFFER
Elizabeth Jean Wanamaker Peratrovich
Peratrovich was born on July 4, 1911 in Petersburg. Her Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat and she was of the Lukaax.adi clan of the Raven moiety, according to information from the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
Her parents died when she was very young and she was adopted by Presbyterian missionaries Mary and Andrew Wanamaker.
She attended school in Petersburg and Sitka and eventually graduated from high school in Ketchikan in 1931. One of her classmates was her future husband Roy Peratrovich of Klawock.
Elizabeth's Senior Picture in the 1931 Kayhi yearbook included the following: Entered from Klawock, Alaska '28; Course: General; Kayhi Ko-Ed Club '29; Operetta '29, '30; Glee Club '29, '30, '31; Her senior motto was "By the words of thy mouth will I Judge thee."
Roy's Senior Picture included the following: Entered from Chemawa, Oregon '29. Course: General. Basketball '30, '31; Baseball '30, '31; Captain of the Basketball Team '31; President of the Lettermen's Club '31; SBA Council. His senior motto was "That stood the stays when waves were rough."
In the Senior Class Will, Roy left his basketball shoes to Leif Harris and Elizabeth left her ability to "work one's way through school" to anyone else who needed to do so.
And The Senior Class Prophecy predicted "Elizabeth married Roy and I see they are very happily settled, running a successful cannery."
After graduation, Elizabeth attended the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington. Roy attended Bellingham Normal College at the same time.
On December 15, 1931, Roy Peratrovich and Elizabeth Wanamaker were married.
Living in Klawock, Roy initially served as a captain of cannery tenders and a fish buyer from 1931 to 1936 while Elizabeth began raising their family - Roy Jr., Frank and Loretta. From 1936 to 1941, Roy served as policeman, chief clerk, city judge, postmaster and eventually Mayor of Klawock. Beginning in 1941, He also served in several capacities with the territorial government - including head of the revenue collectors in 1944 - and also began his long association with the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
In 1941, he was unanimously elected Grand President of the ANB and served until 1945.
And in 1941, Elizabeth was elected Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
1941 was also the year that the family moved to Juneau and was shocked to discover even the relatively cosmopolitan city of Juneau had significant issues with racial discrimination. Many businesses in Juneau had "No Natives allowed" policies.
"In the view of the present emergency (the US had just entered World War II), when unity is being stressed don't you think that (this) is very un-American?" the couple wrote in a joint letter to Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening on Dec. 30, 1941. "We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit accorded our so-called White Brothers. We pay the required taxes, taxes in some instances that we feel are unjust such as the school tax. Our Native people pay the school tax each year to educate the white children, yet they try to exclude our children from these schools."
The Peratrovichs went on to note that young Native men were already serving in the armed forces and are "just as willing to lay down their lives to the protect" the freedom of all Americans.
"We were shocked when the Jews were discriminated against in Germany," they wrote. "Yet (discrimination) is being practiced in our country. When a Norwegian, Swede or Irishman makes a fool of himself in a business establishment, he is asked to leave and it is not held against all of the Norwegians, Swedes or what have you.. We ask to be accorded the same considerations."
The Peratrovichs were also angered when they attempted to lease a home in a neighborhood in downtown Juneau so Roy would be close to his new work with the territorial government. When the property owner discovered the couple was Native he withdrew his original agreement to sell them the house.
With Gruening's help and that of the territorial delegate to the US government, Anthony Dimond, an anti-discrimination bill was introduced in the Alaska Legislature in 1943 (the Legislature met every other year in those days) but it was not passed. The bill was reintroduced in 1945 and that led to one of most dramatic confrontations in Alaska political history.
The bill was introduced in the House by Edward Anderson, the former mayor of Nome. It passed by a 19-5 margin with little debate. But in the territorial Senate, it faced virulent opposition.
Senator Frank Whaley of Fairbanks called the proposal a "lawyers' dream and a natural in creating hard feelings between whites and natives." Whaley went on to say that he didn't want to sit next to an Eskimo in a movie theater because they didn't bath regularly.
Senator Tolbert Scott of Nome spoke against bill, contending that anti-discrimination laws would encourage intermarriage, increasing what he called the "mixed breed problem."
Senator Grenold Collins of Anchorage agreed with Scott, noting that Native Alaskans wanted to remain an "individual race," separate from the whites.
But the Senator who was most opposed to the bill was Allen Shattuck of Juneau.
"Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, the races should be kept further apart," he said. "Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?"
Several Senators then spoke in favor of the bill. Senator O.D. Cochran of Nome declared himself to be "personally assailed" by Senator Whaley's remarks and Senator Norman R. "Doc" Walker of Ketchikan also spoke strongly against the bill's opponents.
When public testimony began, Walker invited Roy Peratrovich to speak as president of the ANB.
Peratrovich reminded the legislators that the territorial government, including Gov. Gruening had acknowledged the presence of discrimination in the territory and he noted the Alaska Democratic Party had taken a position encouraging an anti-discrimination law.
"Only Indians can know how it feels to be discriminated against," Roy Peratrovich said. "Either you are for discrimination or you are against it."
It was the custom in those days to end debate by asking if anyone in the audience wished to speak. Elizabeth Peratrovich put down her knitting and rose in the gallery and asked to speak. She strode to the podium to address the senators.
Contemporary news accounts noted that she was - as always - well dressed and very composed. One commentator referred to her appearance as "extremely beautiful" and "regal" and the exact opposite of what Senator Whaley had complained about.
"I would not have expected," Elizabeth Peratrovich testified in a quiet but clear voice. "That I, who am barely out savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."
She then calmly discussed the myriad of ways that Alaska Natives were discriminated against and told the story of the discrimination that her own family had faced.
"There are three types of persons who practice discrimination," she concluded. "First, the politician who wants to maintain an inferior minority group so that he can always promise them something. Second, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who aren't quite sure of their social position and who are nice to you on one occasion and can't see you on others, depending on who they are with. Third, the great superman who believes in the superiority of the white race."
Then Senator Shattuck asked her if she thought the bill would eliminate discrimination altogether.
"Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes?" she responded. "No law will eliminate crimes but at least you legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination."
The Juneau Daily Alaska Empire reported that chambers, which had been completely still during her testimony, broke into loud applause and the tide had clearly turned against those opposing the legislation.
"It was the neatest performance of any witness yet to appear before this session and there were a few red senatorial ears as she regally left the chambers," the Empire reported.
"Had it not been for that beautiful Tlingit woman, Elizabeth Peratrovich, being on hand every day in the hallways, it (the anti-discrimination bill) would have never passed," Ernest Gruening wrote in his autobiography, "Many Battles."
The bill passed the Senate by an 11-5 margin on February 8, 1945 and was signed into law by Gov. Gruening on February 16, 1945. It was the first such document passed by any state or territory since the Civil War.
That evening Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich spent the evening dancing in the lounge at the Baranof Hotel. The day before the lounge had been off limits to Native Alaskans.
Martin Luther King had just turned 16 and was still a high school student in Atlanta.
After 1945, Elizabeth continued to work for improvements for the Native community. She was particularly interested in improving health care throughout the territory. As her children grew older, she also went to the work for the territorial legislature in different capacities. Roy continued to work for the federal government in Alaska. In 1955, the family moved to Oklahoma after Roy was given a new job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1956, Elizabeth Peratrovich attended a conference in Tennessee on adult Indian education. She heard 26-year-old Martin Luther King speak on the desegregation of churches and was very impressed, according to her family.
In 1958, Elizabeth Peratrovich died after a long battle with cancer and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau. She was only 47. Roy eventually returned to Alaska, serving as one of the top BIA officials in the state before retirement.
In the 1980s, Dorothy McKinley, the president of the Douglas camp of the Alaska Native Sisterhood started an effort to have a day set aside to remember Elizabeth Peratrovich.
"McKinley started the effort to honor a Native civil rights leader last year when reading some 'letters to the editor' in Anchorage newspapers crediting Martin Luther King Jr. with helping to gain equal rights for Alaska Natives," the Juneau Empire reported on Feb. 15, 1989. "She knew what she was reading and what had actually happened were two different stories. She knew that Alaska Natives themselves had battled for equal protection under the law as early as 1912 with the formation of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, whose initial objective was obtaining citizenship for Alaska Natives. McKinley wanted to give credit where credit was due."
The Alaska State House and Senate agreed and Governor Steve Cowper designated February 16th as the first Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in 1988.
Roy Peratrovich died just nine days before the Elizabeth Peratrovich Day was celebrated.
This feature story first appeared in SitNews on February 18, 2008.
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