Art Beat: Community filmmakers document history of blacks in Alaska

Mike Dunham
Ambrogio Maestri considers his girth in the title role of Verdi's “Falstaff.” The live broadcast at theaters in Anchorage and Fairbanks will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 18, 2013.
Devertte Wiliiams, Carolyn Mitchell, Natasha Odom-Cain and May Cannady

Corinthia McCoy explained the genesis of "Blacks in Alaska," a video documentary series that she's directed, thus: "The question we always get in the Lower 48 is, 'There's black people in Alaska?'"

The new series proposes to address that question by getting the stories of African-Americans "whose significant accomplishments are woven into the tapestry of Alaska history." The project, originating with Anchorage-based Black Arts North Academy, has been several years in the making. Portions -- McCoy called them "snippets" -- were presented at Wilda Marston Theatre in Loussac Library on Dec. 7 and more footage of the project will be shown in the same venue starting at 11 a.m. on Dec. 21.

It's been an evolving labor of love, said Natasha Odom-Cain, one of several community volunteers working on the series. "We just started going in and talking to people, then people started coming to us," she said. "It grew into hundreds of interviews. Then the question was: What are we going to do with them?"

The "Blacks in Alaska" team opted for a three-pronged approach, addressing "pioneers," old-timers who could provide an eye-witness to history, then looking at the present population and, finally, providing a voice to the up-and-coming generation.

In some cases, the interviews with the pioneers were done in the nick of time. Frances Macon, who arrived in Alaska in 1952, died on Oct. 21 of this year, shortly after she finished recording her recollections for the camera.

Jimmy Lockhart came to Anchorage in 1946. In the film, he notes that 4th Avenue was lined with bars, but blacks weren't allowed in. "You'd be called the N-word if you did," he said. Blacks were also turned away from the Westward Hotel.

Richard Watts, three years old when his parents came here in 1949, spoke of a suspicious fire that destroyed the home of a black family in Rogers Park in the 1950s and gave rise to the formation of the local NAACP chapter. He also recounted racial protests at Clark Middle School during the early '60s and a weeks-long picketing of the Carrs store on Gambell.

The picketing ended when Carrs agreed to hire a few blacks -- one of whom was Watts. He took the job with the realization that all eyes were on him and resolved to be the best bag boy he could be. He went on to be a store manager and eventually entered the top echelon of the company, responsible for the chain's gourmet and specialty foods and the associated liquor and tobacco outlets.

Those who lived in Alaska before statehood tended to have the most specific memories of discrimination. Those who followed did not cite personal acts of bias, though some acknowledge that there were times they felt a "systemic" racism, which did nothing to dampen their spirits or enthusiasm about living here. But some lament the erosion of a sense of community they found in the early days. "Everybody knew each other because there were so few of us," she said.

The younger generation, including Derek Williamz, a self-described "thoroughbred" born and raised in Alaska, are even more positive about life on the last frontier. Asked whether he has personally experienced discrimination, another young man, identified as Cavon Carmack, said "not really" and added that, from his perspective, most troubles faced by blacks in Alaska nowadays involve "gangs and family feuds, problems that we create for ourselves."

Old-timers will enjoy descriptions of life in Anchorage past that have largely faded from memory. Jeanette Gonzalez remembers the Harlem Club in Eastchester Flats and the restaurant her parents ran there. John Dickerson recounts a two-hour drive from Anchorage to Wasilla "and another 40 minutes up Knik Road" to get to his family's homestead.

For Odom-Cain, working on the project has been a revelation. "I was born here, but I had no idea about some of these things. There's not a lot of information out there, but (the filming) has become bigger than we thought it would be. It's been tiring, but it's been exciting."

As of the Dec. 7 showings, "Blacks in Alaska" appeared to still be a work in progress. The producers hope to have a copy of the finished videos available for checkout from local libraries and for sale to the public perhaps in January. They'd also like to see it incorporated into the Anchorage School District curriculum.

"There's a lot of history here in Alaska," Odom-Cain said. "We want our youth to know about it."

Admission to the Dec. 21 showings will be by a suggested donation of $10. Readers wanting to know more should email

Conductor tryouts in Juneau

For the 2014-15 season, patrons of the Juneau Symphony can expect a series of conductors trying out for the permanent position of music director. Kyle Wiley Pickett, who has led the group since 2000, will leave the podium in Alaska's capital city after a farewell concert in June. Pickett, who has previously juggled the Juneau gig with other engagements around the country, was selected to lead the Topeka (Kan.) Symphony Orchestra and the Springfield (Mo.) Orchestra. In addition to relinquishing his post in Juneau, Pickett is also reported to be leaving as the conductor of California's North State Symphony, his other major job during the Juneau years.

Pickett will wind up the remainder of the current season, which consists of a pops concert Feb. 1-2, the Mozart Requiem April 4-5 and the aforementioned Farewell Concert, in which pianist Tanya Gabrielian will be featured in Brahms' D Minor Concerto, June 14-15.

Though few Anchorage music lovers have had the chance to catch Pickett's programs, an online video of the last 20 minutes of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony recorded at the symphony's 50th anniversary celebration in April shows his technique and the considerable talent of the ensemble.

Good news for Fairbanks opera buffs

We've learned that Regal Cinemas in Fairbanks is also broadcasting the Met Opera productions beamed live to big screens around the world. They've been a feature in Anchorage for the past few years, but seem to be a recent arrival in Fairbanks. This season opened on Saturday with "Falstaff," a new production that will be reprised at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Anchorage Century and Regal Tikhatnu theaters as well as up north.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.