Sunday, February 16, 2020

Before MLK, There Was Elizabeth Peratrovich

Seventy-five years ago today, the first anti-discrimination law was signed on American soil.

It was more than two decades before the Civil Rights Act. Before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech. Before Rosa Parks's act of defiance on a Birmingham bus.

And it was brought to fruition by a soft-spoken Alaska Native woman you have probably never heard of.  It's long past time to learn her story.



Elizabeth Jean Wanamaker was born in Petersburg, Alaska on the Fourth of July, 1911, the daughter of a Native woman and an Irish man.  She was a member of the Tlingit nation, a tribe in Southeast Alaska, Northwest British Columbia, and the Southern Yukon Territory with a complex language and rich in culture, art, natural resources and oral history; a nation with a history of fierce warfare and a love of politics that transposed in modern times to powerful leadership.  Tlingit people are keenly aware of their heritage and can proudly cite their moiety and clan.  She would have been able to inform you at an early age that she was of a member of the Raven moiety, Lukaax̱.ádi clan and that her Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat.


When her biological parents were unable to raise her, she was adopted by another Tlingit couple, Andrew J. and Jean (Williams) Wanamaker.  Andrew was a fisherman, a lay minister for the Presbyterian church, and a charter member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), a lodge for Native men which worked to combat discrimination.  Jean was a skilled basket maker.  Elizabeth's growing up years included several Southeast Alaska communities:  Petersburg; my hometown of Klawock where she met her future husband Roy Peratrovich; and Ketchikan, where both she and Roy graduated from the public high school, which had been integrated after the school board was successfully sued by a Tlingit couple more than a quarter of a century before Brown vs. Board of Education.  Elizabeth continued her education at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska and the Western College of Education (now part of Western Washington University) in Bellingham, Washington.

At the time Elizabeth was born, neither women nor Natives could vote.  Native Americans were not even given citizenship until 1924--four years after (white) women were given suffrage--and the last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native people was Utah in 1962.  Alaska Natives, although in the majority population-wise, experienced a great deal of prejudice and discrimination from the Caucasian population in what was then Alaska Territory.  Segregation was common everywhere in Alaska. It was this world in which Elizabeth and Roy grew up and were married, on 15 December 1931.

At first they lived in Klawock.  Roy was from a prominent Native family.  The Peratroviches, descendants of a Croatian man and his three Tlingit wives, were well-known in Alaska.  They were acute businessmen and politicians.  Roy's younger half-brother Frank served in the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives, the Alaska Territorial Senate, the Alaska State House of Representatives, and the Alaska State Senate.  Both Roy and Frank served as mayor of Klawock.  Roy also served as a policeman, chief clerk, and the postmaster of Klawock.  Just as importantly, he became Grand President of the ANB, and Elizabeth became the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS).  The couple and their three children eventually moved to the territorial capital of Juneau, where they could be more involved with politics.

It was in Juneau that the Peratroviches especially noticed how strong discrimination was.  Signs stating, "No dogs or Indians" or "No Natives Allowed" were posted in front of many businesses.  When Roy and Elizabeth attempted to obtain housing in a nice neighborhood, they were refused on account of their race.  Three-and-a-half weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they wrote a letter to the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening:

The proprietor of "Douglas Inn" does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing as the White boys to lay down their lives to protect the freedom that he enjoys.  Instead he shows his appreciation by having a "No Natives Allowed" on his door.  
We were shocked when the Jews were discriminated against in Germany.  Stories were told of public places having signs, "No Jews Allowed."  All freedom-loving people in our country were horrified at these reports, yet it is being practiced in our country.

The governor befriended the couple and together they worked to pass an anti-discrimination law through the territorial legislature in 1943.  Unfortunately, it failed with a tie vote of 8-8.  But Elizabeth and Roy didn't give up.  They traveled tirelessly across the territory, encouraging Natives to support their cause and urging many of them to run for legislature.  Two years later, the bill again came to a vote.  Although expected to pass this time, there was much heated debate and many onlookers, including the Peratroviches.  Elizabeth sat quietly listening to the arguments while knitting in the back of the gallery.

Senator Allan Shattuck expressed the sentiments of many prejudiced Alaskans when he debated:
Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?

When it came time for public comments, Elizabeth set down her knitting needles and, poised and dignified, made her way to the podium from the back of the gallery.  Intelligent and beautiful, she would have had the eyes and ears of everyone in the room.  The last to speak, she was clear and eloquent:
I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.

Her passionate speech described what it was like to be treated as a second-class citizen in her ancestral lands, how difficult it was to be refused housing because of the color of her skin, and how dismaying it was for Native children to be barred from the theaters or stores.
No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.

Her words were met with thunderous applause.  When the vote was taken, the bill was passed with a vote of 11 to 5.  On 16 February 1945, Governor Gruening signed the act with Roy and Elizabeth proudly looking on.



Elizabeth Wannamaker Peratrovich died of breast cancer on 1 December 1958 in Juneau and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery there.  Roy was laid beside her after he passed in 1989.

On February 6, 1988, the Alaska legislature declared February 16 to be "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day," which has been proudly celebrated by Alaska Natives ever since.

Every year a distinguished Native American is featured on the reverse of the U.S. Sacajawea golden dollar.  At the 2019 Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp, the design of the golden dollar coin commemorating Elizabeth Peratrovich was unveiled.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Sister Trip to Michigan: Part III

Monday, May 6, 2019:  Our third day of our trip and second full day in Michigan.  And what a day it was!

We checked out of our hotel in Grand Rapids and headed to the public library.  As we were leaving the hotel, I walked across the street to photograph this historic site marker, as Grand Rapids was once known as the "Furniture Capital of America."  Several of our ancestors worked in furniture factories in Grand Rapids.

(Click photo to enlarge)

The downtown branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library is a beautiful building. It was built in 1904 as a gift to the city by Martin A. Ryerson.  The library has been in existence since 1871.  In 1967, a wing was added to the back, and in 2001 it was completely renovated.  When I first approached the entrance, I wondered how many of our ancestors had entered this building and enjoyed the pleasure of reading.

Detail of the masonry above the main entrance of the GRPL
(click to enlarge)
My sister photographed me on the steps of the GRPL.
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Phillips.
(click to enlarge)

We headed to the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections department, which includes genealogical resources, on the fourth floor.  My goal was to locate some newspaper articles about our 3rd-great-grandfather, Charles H. Robbins, a Civil War veteran; an obituary of our 2nd-great-grandmother's sister, Nellie (Ton) Houseman; and some school census records featuring our adoptive great-grandmother Nellie M. Concidine, a school teacher, and our great-grandfather William James Valk and his sisters, Jennie and Gertrude.  While I obviously could spend days or weeks in Special Collections with all our Western Michigan ancestral records, these were a list of items I knew were reasonable to research with the little time we had to spend there.  I had found references to many of these items in the online databases of the Western Michigan Genealogical Society ahead of time.

We had located two of the articles and the obituary by the time my genealogy friend, Chris Korstange, arrived.  This was the first opportunity to meet in real life after being online friends for about 10 years.  Chris and I had connected through the old Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness website when he asked for a lookup to resources I had at my disposal.  In turn, he has done lookups for me at GRPL and local cemeteries. Chris is also a genealogy blogger, and with similar Dutch immigrant ancestry in Grand Rapids, it is pretty likely we will someday find an ancestral connection, either by being related to each other, or discovering our ancestors lived near, worked with, or worshiped with each other.  After a welcoming hug and introducing him to my sister, he helped us by looking up and making scans of the Kent County School Censuses while we finished looking for the rest of the articles.

Chris and I at the entrance of the Special Collections room
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Phillips
(click to enlarge)

Chris then drove us through the Heritage Hill Historic District with its grand homes (see what I did there?!) to what had once been the Delos A. Blodgett Home for Children, an orphanage where our paternal grandmother, Jane Marie York/Jeanne Marie Holst and her brother, and our maternal grandfather, William Valk, and his siblings, had once lived for short periods, at different times.

I had done some research in the past year, contacting the D.A. Blodgett - St. Johns non-profit organization to try to obtain records on our York and Valk families.  Although the full records have since been destroyed, I was able to receive scans of the index cards listing our families, with just enough information to confirm some of the theories I had made regarding their stays, as well as new information.  I will be blogging about this at a later time.  My inquiries to ICCF, the organization that currently occupies the Blodgett building, were never answered.  I had hoped to be able to tour the building's interior while we were in Grand Rapids. However, were able to get some good exterior photos.  As we wandered the front courtyard, I thought about the sad circumstances that had brought two of our grandparents and their siblings to this building.  Every family story I have ever heard on both the York and the Valk sides about Blodgett Home had the same theme:  it was not a nice place to be.  Whether it was because of the situations that led to their placement or their treatment while there, or a combination, I could feel the sadness of this place.  And yet, I felt personal gratitude, as well, because despite whatever occurred within these four walls, it was a place that filled a gap in family care that otherwise may have brought on worse trauma than what was already experienced.

The former D.A Blogett Home for Children, built 1908
920 Cherry St., NE
(click to enlarge)

Detail of the three-story pillars and balconies
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My sister and I in front of an ancestral home, of sorts
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Phillips
Taken by Chris Korstange
(click to enlarge)

Next stop, was Oakhill Cemetery, where our 3rd-great-grandmother, Maria Marina (Van Klinken) Ton Bijl, and very likely her husband Pieter Ton, are buried in unmarked graves in the Potter's Field. Chris helped us to locate the unmarked plot where Maria's brother Johannes "John" Van Klinken was buried. By then, it was starting to rain pretty hard.

Somewhere in this corner of Oakhill Cemetery, our 3rd-great-grandmother, Maria Marina (Van Klinken) Ton Bijl is buried.  Her husband Pieter Adriannse Ton is also likely buried here.
(Click to enlarge)

While these tombstones do not belong to our ancestors, I photographed them to show the condition of the few marked graves in Potter's Field (Permit Grounds) of Oakhill Cemetery: broken, dilapidated, uncared for.  These graves aren't even listed on the cemetery's map. You can see that they are inscribed in Dutch.
(click to enlarge)

We were able to identify this spot as the resting place of Maria's brother, Johannes "John" Van Klinken (1840 - 1913) using Oakhill Cemetery's grave mapping website.  We used some sticks to dig down to see if there was a gravestone covered by dirt, but were unsuccessful. It likely was never marked.
(click to enlarge)

This grave of Peternella de Jongh just south of Johannes Van Klinken's grave helped us to locate his grave, as the Oakhill Cemetery's grave mapping site listed hers as being in the same lot.
(click to enlarge)

This marker was in Potter's Field, next to the cemetery road.
It made me very sad to look at, as there is no information as to how many Blodgett Home children there were buried here, or who they were.
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Phillips.
(click to enlarge)

Chris returned us to the library parking lot where our rental car had been parked.  There we discovered that we had lost our rental car keys!  At this point, the rain was absolutely pouring down, so after quickly searching Chris' vehicle, the parking lot, the steps of the library, and the courtyard in front of it where we snapped photos, we reentered the library, dripping wet, to see if they had been turned in to the front desk.  They had not.  Our next search was the elevator, Special Collections room, and restrooms.  We quickly determined that they probably had been dropped at the cemetery.  Chris was kind enough to not only take us back out there, but tromp around in the downpour to help us find them.  After about 10 minutes, they were located, and he returned us to our rental car.  Thankfully, he did not need to drive us out to the airport to the rental car office get another set of keys!

After parting ways with Chris, we headed to west of the river to a cafe to dry off and grab a cup of coffee.  After the cloudburst ended, we headed over to the John D. Widdicomb Furniture Factory where our step-great-grandfather, George DeVries, had worked. It's business complex now, but we got some great photos of the four beautiful yellow brick buildings located on both the west and east sides of Seward Avenue, parallel to the railroad tracks.  I could just imagine how noisy and busy it was in its heyday, with the busy railroad bringing in lumber and shipping out completed furniture.

The southwest building, from the south
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The southwest and northwest buildings, from the southeast
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The southwest building, from the east
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The southwest building, from the northeast
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The northwest building, from the southeast
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South end of the southeast (original) building, from the west
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Detail of the old doors of the southeast (original) building, from the west
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Detail of the corner stone, east building"Widdicomb Furniture Co. 1877"
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North end of the southeast (original) building and south end of the northeast building
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North end of the southeast (original) building and south end of the northeast building
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North end of the northeast building, from the northwest
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North end of the northeast building, from the west
(click to enlarge)

Then we headed west to Coopersville in Ottawa County, where our dad and his siblings grew up. After checking in at our hotel, we met our dad's brother and youngest sister at her place, which just happens to be across the street from the home our grandfather built and where they all grew up.

The house and auto body shop our Grandfather Robbins built
Coopersville, Michigan
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Phillips
(click to enlarge)

Our dad's brother and youngest sister
Photo courtesy of Katrinka Pillips
(click to enlarge)

While visiting with them, sharing photos with each other of our of children and grandchildren and looking at old family photos, I held my own little Scanfest on my Flip-Pal scanner, scanning our Robbins great-grandparents' little memo book from 1938.  I also took this photo of Aunt Jo's artwork.  Josephine Rebecca (Huff) Robbins was married to our Great-grandfather Robbins' brother Lloyd.  She was the Robbins family genealogist for many years before she passed away in 1987.  I had forgotten that she was also interested in art.




After a long, full, busy day, we crashed in our hotel room.  More adventures awaited us the next day!


Sister Trip to Michigan: Part I
Sister Trip to Michigan: Part II

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Friday, June 07, 2019

Sister Trip to Michigan: Part II

Our first full day in Michigan, Sunday, March 5, was a beautiful one.  Since the forecast was predicting rain for much of our trip, we decided it would be a good day to visit the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park while we were in Grand Rapids.  There are many gardens and exhibits, and we easily could have spent several days exploring everything; but since we had only one day planned for it, we chose the indoor art gallery, the Japanese garden, and the Sculpture Park.

"Gilded Champagne Gardens Chandelier"
by Dale Chihuly
Gallery foyer

Detail of "New World Map"
by El Anatsui
Gallery
Sculptural tapestry made of thousands of recycled aluminum bottle tops

"Blue Phrygian Cap"
by Alexander Calder
Gallery

Detail of  "Fighting Lions"
by Nina Akamu
Gallery

"Long Island Buddha"
by Zhang Huan
Japanese garden

The pond at the Japanese garden

"American Horse"
by Nina Akamu
Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci
Sculpture Park

The Grand Rapids Arch
by Andy Goldsworth
Made with native Scotland stone
Sculpture Park

"I, you, she or he..."
by Jaume Plensa
Sculpture Park
These sculptures are made of thousands of stainless steel letters of the alphabet.

"Listening to History"
by Bill Woodrow
Sculpture Park
A favorite of mine!
After several hours at the Gardens, we met up for a late lunch with my mom's paternal half siblings and their family, the Valks, at Golden Corral.  All four of the children of Grandpa Valk and his wife Elaine were there, three uncles and an aunt.  While we had met them all on one of the trips we made when I was 11 1/2 - 12 years old, I really only remember playing with their children, my younger Valk cousins, in the family room in the basement of Grandpa Valk's house.  And of course, my sister was a baby, so she had no memories from that time.  Our mom's youngest Valk brother and his wife came to Spokane last summer for a visit, so we had gotten acquainted with them, but this lunch gave us an opportunity to meet the other uncles and aunt, along with their spouses, and some of their children and grandchildren, our cousins.  There were about a dozen and a half of us, total, and we had an enjoyable lunch visiting for several hours, getting to know each other better, and sharing with them all the family news from our side of the country.



During lunch, as we were talking about Grandpa Valk and Grandma Elaine, I mentioned that I wanted to visit their graves, as I had never been to the cemetery where they were laid to rest.  My youngest uncle and his wife offered to accompany us, and also told us that Uncle Jimmy's grave was there as well.  Jimmy was Grandpa's first child, from his first marriage.


James "Jimmy" Frederick Valk was born 25 February 1939 in Grand Rapids to William Valk and Elfriede Joan Lomker.  He was either developmentally disabled or deaf, or both.  He was institutionalized and died at the age of 19, from pneumonia, as I understand it.

After paying our respects to Jimmy, we turned to leave when I spotted two Lomker graves nearby.  I recognized them as Elfriede's parents, Anna (Kirchdyke) and Herman Fritz Lomker.  It was comforting to me that Jimmy was buried near family, as my grandfather's grave was in a different area of the cemetery.



I have written previously about Jimmy, his mother Elfriede, her marriage to and divorce from my grandfather, as well as her subsequent marriage to my grandfather's brother Chet, who died in the Battle of the Bulge.  You can read that post here.

Next, we spent some time at my Grandpa Valk's and Grandma Elaine's graves.  My uncle and aunt shared fond memories of them, many of which were new to my sister and me.  I especially enjoyed hearing how Grandpa and his three sons would play games of baseball together when they were kids.


Our maternal grandfather, William Valk, was born 30 October 1912 in Grand Rapids to William James and Agnes (Tuinstra) Valk, the third child and son of eight children.  He first married Elfriede Joan Lomker on 13 May 1937 in South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana.  They had one son, James Frederick Valk.  After their divorce in 1941, he married our maternal grandmother, Ruth Lillian DeVries, on 11 September 1943 in Junction City, Geary County, Kansas near where he was stationed in the U.S. Army during World War II at Fort Riley. They had one daughter, our mother.  After their divorce in 1946, he married Elaine Estelle Bennett on 22 April 1950 in Grand Rapids.  They had three sons and a daughter.  Grandpa died 10 October 1989 at his home in Caledonia Township, Kent County, Michigan.

Our maternal step-grandmother, Elaine Estelle Seif, was born to Robert Olive Bennett (a.k.a. Seif) and Treasure Baldwin on 27 January 1927 in Grand Rapids (Elaine's father chose to go by his stepfather Andrew Seif's surname).  Elaine was the second of two daughters.  She died 11 January 2016.

After parting with our family, we went to Meijer,a grocery and department store, not unlike Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest, and got a few supplies and groceries for the next few days. We then settled in at our hotel room to watch the current episode of Game of Thrones and enjoy our Cinco de Mayo "dinner" of margaritas and quesadillas ordered from room service.


Sister Trip to Michigan: Part I
Sister Trip to Michigan: Part III

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sister Trip to Michigan: Part I

In early May of this year, my younger sister and I took a one-week-long trip to Western Michigan to visit family, do a little genealogy, and sight-see.  Both of our parents are from Western Michigan: Mom is from the City of Grand Rapids in Kent County, and Dad was raised in Coopersville, a small town in Ottawa County about 20 miles west of Grand Rapids.

While not everything we did was related to genealogy, and what research we did was minimal, I am sharing our journey here, since we did a lot of follow up to some of the stories I have written about here in my blog.

A little background about our parents' families:  Our dad is the second child and first son of a family of five children.  His oldest sister lives in Spokane, near us.  The younger three siblings, an uncle and two aunts, live in Western Michigan.  Our mom was the only child of the marriage of her parents.  Her dad had been married before and had a disabled son from that marriage who died in his late teens.  Our grandmother was his second wife and he was her first husband.  Our mom was raised in her mother and step-dad's home with a younger brother and sister.  Our grandfather had three sons and a daughter with his third wife.  All of my mom's living siblings live in Western Michigan, except for her maternal half-sister who lives near Detroit.

The first day of our sister trip was Saturday, May 4th.  Our flight from Spokane to Grand Rapids through Denver arrived late in the afternoon, and after picking up our rental car and checking into our hotel, we met up with our uncle's family (our mom's maternal half-brother with whom she was raised) at a restaurant for an early dinner.  Attending was our uncle's wife, their daughter (our cousin) with two of her children, and their daughter's fiance.  After dinner, we headed to our cousin's house for more visiting, but on the way, we stopped at Fairplains Cemetery to visit our grandparents' graves.  It was my sister's first visit to their graves since they had passed away in 2001 and 2007.  I had visited the cemetery when I came to Michigan in 2012 for our paternal grandmother's memorial service.




Our maternal grandmother was born Ruth Lillian DeVries on 16 January 1919 in Blodgett Memorial Hospital, the Village of East Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan to John Martin and Lillian Fern (Strong) Hoekstra.  She was the eldest of three daughters.  She first married our grandfather, William Valk, on 11 September 1943 in Junction City, Geary County, Kansas, having traveled to marry him where he was stationed in the U.S. Army during World War II at Fort Riley.  After their divorce in 1946, she met and later married my step-grandfather, Adrian "Ed" DeVries on 3 October 1947 in Wyoming Township, Kent County.  Grandma died 25 August 2001 in Grand Rapids and was buried at Fairplains four days later.  Today, both the Village of East Grand Rapids and the area in Wyoming Township where she married Grandpa, are now a part of the City of Grand Rapids.



Our maternal (step) grandfather, Adrian "Ed" DeVries, was born 10 June 1916 in Grand Rapids to Jarig Egbert Binnes DeVries and his wife Johanna Bos (their names were Anglicized to George Edward Benjamin DeVries and Josephine Bush).  Ed was the third child and third son of five children.  He attended South High School in Grand Rapids just a few grades behind Gerald R. Ford, Jr., and eventually followed him to the University of Michigan, although the Great Depression cut his college education short.  He joined the U.S. Army during World War II and served as a military postal clerk in North Africa.  After the war, he met our grandmother on a blind date with mutual friends, and soon they were courting.  Our mother started calling him "Daddy" before Grandma even married him!  He raised our mother along with his own two biological children and never treated her any differently than if she were his own.  He was the only maternal grandfather we knew well, having met our Grandpa Valk only a few times.  In fact, of the six grandchildren Grandpa DeVries had, only one was biological, due to step-families and adoption.  He loved us all equally.  Adrian died 6 January 2007 in Grand Rapids, and was buried four days later at Fairplains.

After a nice visit at my cousin's house for a couple of hours, we headed back to our hotel, where I enjoyed the previous week's episode of Game of Thrones, having missed it, and then wrapped up the evening with a couple of drinks from room service.



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