Celebrating Elizabeth Peratrovich
“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights." --- Elizabeth Peratrovich
Seventy-three years ago, Alaska territorial leaders signed into law a bill prohibiting the discrimination of people in public places. HB 14, the anti-discrimination act, was approved by the Legislature of the Territory of Alaska on February 6, 1945.
This bill prefaced a nationwide civil rights movement. Two decades after HB 14 was signed, federal leaders enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color religion, sex or national origin.
Championing Alaska’s movement in the 1940s was Tlingit activist and Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Elizabeth Peratrovich.
“Fighting for rights was instilled in her” -- Roy Peratrovich, Elizabeth’s husband
As the Legislature of the Territory of Alaska met to decide the fate of the anti-discrimination bill, Elizabeth Peratrovich provided the closing statement. She turned a senator’s previous statement on its head as she defended her own intelligence, spoke of her experience with discrimination and inspired the legislator to help the Alaska Natives overcome discrimination.
“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights. When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbor’s children, we found such a home and had arranged to lease it. When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said ‘no.’ Would we be compelled to live in the slums?
“There are three kinds of persons who practice discrimination. 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.
“To answer Senator Shattuck's earlier question about whether we think this bill will eliminate discrimination, do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? 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.”
Overcoming discrimination is the responsibility of all.
Each year February 16th is recognized as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day by the State of Alaska. Sealaska shareholder Dorothy Webster championed for the day of recognition. Through her efforts and leadership as ANS Camp #3 President, she was instrumental in inspiring the State of Alaska to set aside one day to recognize Peratrovich’s legacy and leadership.
Read Celebrating SE civil rights leaders by Eric Fry (Juneau Empire) that includes an interview with Dorothy Webster.
Timeline of Anti-Discrimination Effort
From Recollection of Civil Rights Leader, Elizabeth Peratrovich, compiled by then T & H President and Sealaska Director Edward K. Thomas, published 1991
- 1741 – 1867 (126 years of Russian Occupation)
- 1867 – 1905
- U.S. Purchase
- Organic Act of 1884
- 1897 Petition from Orthodox Residents to the Imperial Russian Ambassador
- 189 Petition from Tlingit Chiefs to U.S. President
- 1904 -1905 inconsistent court decisions on Citizenship
- Struggle for Democracy
- July 4, 1911 – Elizabeth Peratrovich born
- 1912 Alaska gained a Legislature and ANB was formed
- 1915 ANS Founded
- 1024 U.S. Congress granted American Citizenship to Native Americans
- 1925-27 William Paul, Sr. elected to Legislature
- 1939 Ernest Gruening appointed Alaska Governor
- Preparing for Battle
- 1940 Roy Peratrovich Elected ANB Grand Camp President
- 1941 ANB | ANS Convention in Hydaburg
- ANB | ANS and Governor Gruening combine efforts
- 1943 1st anti-discrimination bill defeated
- 1944 Frank Peratrovich and Andrew Hope elected to Legislature
- 1944 ANB | ANS Convention Kake
- 1945 Anti-discrimination bill passes Alaska Territorial Legislature