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How Alaska's equal rights law was first put to the test

  • Author: Ross Coen
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 14, 2017

Beatrice and Robert Coleman, pictured sometime around 1945-1950. (Courtesy Theressa Leaner)

All they really wanted was a highball.

Robert and Beatrice Coleman stepped out of the Lacey Street Theatre in Fairbanks on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 13, 1946. The married couple had just watched John Wayne get even with swindlers, scoundrels and land barons in Joseph Kane's "Dakota," and now, with the unseasonably brisk autumn night getting colder by the minute, they went arm-in-arm to Hill's Cocktail Lounge across the street.

The couple was enjoying themselves, happy to stay out a bit longer while their 3-year-old daughter was at home with a sitter. They sat at a table in Hill's, leaning toward each other to talk in the intimate way that couples do, and several minutes went by before they noticed no waitress had come to take their order. Beatrice caught the eye of the bartender. It wasn't difficult since he'd been staring at them since they entered.

Rudy Hill marched over to the couple. He was blunt. "I have a license that gives me the right to refuse service to anyone I see fit to not serve," he said, according to a statement Beatrice Coleman later gave, "and my reason for not serving you is because you are colored." The proprietor showed the Colemans to the door.

In a legal process that played out over the next 2 1/2 years, the incident in Hill's bar would put to the test, for the first time, the Anti-Discrimination Act that had been enacted by the territorial legislature in 1945. Today, it is one of the most famous pieces of legislation in Alaska history, known best for the tireless advocacy behind its passage by Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit couple and at the time the presidents of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, respectively.

Elizabeth's famous testimony, in particular, has been recounted in books, articles, plays, poems, films and works of art. There is a state holiday in her honor.

The Anti-Discrimination Act prohibited denying the entry and use of public facilities to anyone on the basis of race. The case against Rudy Hill would be the first time the act was enforced — not in Juneau, where the Peratroviches lived and faced discrimination almost on a daily basis, but in Fairbanks, where the Colemans had moved a few years earlier during the wartime boom.

Beatrice Coleman could find no lawyer in Fairbanks willing to represent her, and she had to browbeat the U.S. Attorney into filing charges against Hill. But when the case finally reached the courts, it seemed that Hill would face justice. The facts of the case were not really in dispute. Hill had ejected the black couple from his establishment, explicitly citing their race as the reason for doing so. This was precisely the sort of discrimination the law had been enacted to address. Six weeks after the incident, the bar owner was convicted of a misdemeanor and slapped with a $50 fine.

Hill's appeal, however, would reveal a fatal flaw in the Anti-Discrimination Act, a drafting error that rendered the law essentially unenforceable. His conviction was later overturned, leaving Beatrice Coleman to complain in a letter to the NAACP that the act was "not worth the paper it is written on."

The trial

A few days after the humiliating encounter in Hill's bar, Beatrice Coleman went to see Warren Taylor, a territorial legislator and prominent member of the Fairbanks legal community. Taylor welcomed Coleman to his office, boasting that he had voted for the equal rights act the year before and that he'd be happy to take her case. However, he noted, her chances of suing Hill for damages in civil court would be improved if a criminal conviction came first.

Taylor sent Coleman to Harry O. Arend, the U.S. Attorney and future Alaska Supreme Court justice. To her surprise and disappointment, Arend dissuaded her from filing a criminal complaint, saying there was nothing he could do. A bar, he explained, was looked on as private property, which the owner could manage as he saw fit, even to the point of ejecting people for any reason whatsoever.

With assistance from the NAACP in New York (the first Alaska chapter of the NAACP would not open until 1951), Coleman directed Arend's attention to Chapter 2, S.L.A. 1945, the legal designation for the Anti-Discrimination Act, and insisted he file charges against Hill. She also presented another black resident, Emmet Roberts, who had once been kicked out of Hill's bar and was now willing to testify in a trial. Arend relented and filed a warrant for Hill's arrest.

On Nov. 26, 1946, Robert and Beatrice Coleman arrived at the court house for the trial and saw Warren Taylor, the man Beatrice believed to be her lawyer, standing at the defense table.

Beatrice and Robert Coleman, pictured sometime around 1945-1950. (Courtesy Theressa Leaner)

According to a statement Beatrice later gave, Taylor explained, "I've been talking to Mr. Hill, and I don't think there is any too much damage on your part, that (the incident) wasn't as you say, and so I do not want the civil case." Taylor now planned to defend Hill.

The story Hill told Taylor to convince him to switch sides, a tale he would relay again on the witness stand in a few moments, was that the Colemans were drunk when they entered his bar that Sunday evening and that he refused to serve them on account they might have become rowdy and a danger to themselves or others. Hill was asked if he discriminated against the Colemans on the basis of their skin color. No, he replied.

The U.S. commissioner saw through Hill's ploy — especially when other witnesses testified the Colemans had been quiet and sober in the movie theater earlier that evening — and Hill was convicted of the misdemeanor of "refusing to provide full and equal accommodations, facilities and privileges" under the Anti-Discrimination Act. The court records show he was fined $50.

If the Colemans celebrated the verdict, their joy was short-lived. Taylor immediately filed an appeal on behalf of his client, announcing his intention to have a demurrer attached to the case. A demurrer, in layman's terms, is a claim in which the defendant challenges the basis for the court's action while not disputing the central facts of the case. In Hill's case, Taylor claimed that even if the bar owner did indeed discriminate against the Colemans, his actions did not actually constitute a violation of the act's penalty clause.

He found a loophole in the law, in other words.

A nervous Beatrice Coleman wrote a letter to Gov. Ernest Gruening. Was Taylor correct? Was Hill going to get away with discriminating against blacks because the law was inadequate?

"Although the Act has had a good psychological effect," replied Attorney General Ralph Rivers to the Colemans on behalf of the governor, "I have had my fingers crossed regarding its sufficiency."

The problem, Rivers explained, was that although the Anti-Discrimination Act broadly declared any denial of full and equal access to be a misdemeanor, Section 2 of the act, the penalty clause, was worded so that violators could be jailed or fined only if they used written signs to discriminate.

The posting in public places of signs reading "No Natives Allowed" had motivated the Alaska Native Brotherhood to sponsor the act in the first place. For that reason, the act prioritized discriminatory signs over discrimination itself. "Any person," the penalty clause began, "who shall display any printed or written sign indicating a discrimination on racial grounds of said full and equal enjoyment, for each day for which said sign is displayed shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor."

So long as Hill, or any other business owner for that matter, did not post signs in his bar stating "We do not serve black people" or language to that effect, he could deny service to whomever he chose and face no penalty under the Anti-Discrimination Act.

"According to this view," Rivers informed Coleman, "any violation would be a misdemeanor, but it would only be in cases where a sign was displayed that each day of such display would constitute a (punishable) offense."

The situation ‘is a little bit worse’

While they awaited the outcome of Hill's demurrer claim, the Colemans contacted other black Fairbanksans and collected information about local bars and restaurants. They found all but two discouraged or actively refused to serve blacks or Natives. Robert Coleman overheard one bar owner saying that $50, the amount of the fine levied against Hill, was just the cost of doing business to keep the blacks out.

Even when not denied access to public spaces, blacks in Fairbanks received clear signals they were not welcome. Beatrice once went back to Hill's bar and, while not removed from the premises, was charged the exorbitant price of $2 for a Coke (the beverage normally sold for 5 cents).

On Nov. 7, 1947, nearly one year after the first trial, the district court overturned Hill's conviction. The judge's order consisted of just one sentence: "Good cause appearing therefore, defendant's demurrer to the complaint in this cause is hereby sustained and the cause is dismissed."

(As with the original conviction, the dismissal was not covered by the local newspaper — but the next day's edition did feature a quarter-page ad for Hill's inviting Fairbanksans to enjoy the bar's "Generous Atmosphere.")

Beatrice Coleman was disappointed, though perhaps not surprised. "I guess the problem of this town on segregation will not be solved and the situation is a little bit worse now," she informed the NAACP. "The trial is ended and things are much worse for the colored people."

An ad for Hill’s Bar published in the Nov. 8, 1947, edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. (Courtesy Theressa Leaner)

Coleman's correspondence with Franklin W. Williams of the NAACP makes clear that while justifiably angry with Rudy Hill, her real disappointment was with the laws and governments of Alaska and the United States, which, in her view, had proven themselves so weak they'd been outwitted by a racist bartender and his lawyer.

"I'd give a lot to know why Washington, D.C., sends blacks up here (in the military), when the law is not worth the paper it is written on," she complained.

Perhaps the only Alaskan more disgusted than Beatrice Coleman was Sen. Edward Anderson of Nome, the legislator who had introduced the equal rights bill in 1945. At the opening of the next territorial legislature in January 1949, Anderson introduced a bill to amend to the Act by deleting the phrase "for each day for which said sign is displayed."

Simply removing those nine words resolved the ambiguity that freed Rudy Hill and made the act broadly enforceable against any act of racial discrimination. The amendment passed the Senate 16-0, and the House 18-3. Warren Taylor cast one of the no votes.

Remembering Beatrice Coleman

Today, the Anti-Discrimination Act exists in the public imagination as a breakthrough achievement for civil rights. No less an authority than Ernest Gruening heralded the act in his memoir as inaugurating a "new era in Alaska's racial relations." In his 1954 book, "The State of Alaska," the former governor also boasted, "Not an untoward incident was reported subsequent to the enactment of the 'equal-treatment bill' " — a claim he knew to be false having met personally with Robert and Beatrice Coleman five years before.

This triumphalist view of history tells only part of the story. It may, in fact, do no small amount of harm to race relations in the present. Fixing the fatal flaw in the Anti-Discrimination Act was easy. It took only an amendment to delete nine words. But misremembering our history is a more vexing problem.

In his 1999 book, "The Holocaust in American Life," historian Peter Novick examines the compelling need to learn lessons and even derive wisdom from history. Noting the importance of "confronting (the past) in all its complexity and its contradictions," he writes:

"If there are lessons to be extracted from encountering the past, that encounter has to be with the past in all its messiness; they're not likely to come from an encounter with a past that's been shaped and shaded so that inspiring lessons will emerge."

By the same token, we owe it to ourselves to remember not only Elizabeth Peratrovich's story, but Beatrice Coleman's as well. Beatrice went on to be a founding member of the Fairbanks chapter of the NAACP, and she remained active in civil rights causes until her death in 1982. Failure was not an end point for her when Hill's conviction was overturned in 1947. It was a starting point for her to continue the struggle. May we continue her important work.

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political and environmental history of Alaska and the American West. He lives in Fairbanks.

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