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.


2 comments:

Joan said...

Bunches of Kudos! Thank you for placing this great piece of history before us.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thank *you*, Joan, for dropping by!