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Alaska Life

How Alaska’s black community fought against police harassment, arson and rampant discrimination for civil rights

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: June 15
  • Published June 14

A government publication included maps of Eastchester Flats in 1965. (Alaska State Housing Authority (ASHA). Urban Renewal Plan: Eastchester Area, Project Alaska R-16, Anchorage, Alaska. Anchorage: ASHA, 1965)

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On March 21, 1965, Rev. Boyd Rogers, pastor of Anchorage’s New Hope Baptist Church, led a civil rights march in sympathy with Martin Luther King Jr, then in Selma, Alabama. Unlike events in Selma, the Anchorage march was peaceful and uneventful. The Anchorage police chief even participated, which was notable for 1965 America. But a week later, early March 28, a firebomb was thrown at the front door of Rogers’ Mountain View home. Rogers, his wife and four children were asleep; a neighbor saw the fire and woke them up.

No one was injured. Rogers told the Anchorage Daily News, “When you get up in the middle of the night and find your home on fire at the door — you can’t imagine how I felt.” He added, “We’ll probably sell the house and move.” The next year he indeed left his New Hope pastorship and Alaska behind.

Protests are nothing new in Anchorage, including labor strikes, sit-ins, marches and picket lines. Within this lengthy history, there were several notable, revelatory and largely forgotten civil rights-era protests.

Perhaps the earliest civil rights protest in Anchorage was essentially a 1953 sit-in at the old downtown Pagoda restaurant, no relation to the later Pagoda of 1970s-era Spenard Road. Longtime Anchorage real estate agent Joseph Jackson told a KSKA reporter in the early 1980s, the Pagoda “wouldn’t serve blacks because whites wouldn’t come in there, they said.” Jackson himself had been refused service.

On June 8, 1953, four African American Anchorage residents, including Blanche McSmith, later selected to the first state legislature, entered the restaurant. They waited to be seated, and waited, and watched as party after party that entered after them was seated without hesitation. McSmith’s group pressed charges, but at trial, the jury quickly ruled the restaurant staff and owners innocent.

For McSmith and company, under protection of Alaska’s 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act, the case should have been as quickly concluded in their favor. They wanted food but didn’t receive food. They were black. Everyone receiving food was white. Such is the problem with anti-discrimination laws. They rely on police and judicial systems for their enforcement.

To put the Pagoda incident in the context of midcentury Anchorage, there was extensive housing discrimination limiting where minorities could live. Most black residents migrated into the Flats, later cleared by urban renewal into what is now southern Fairview. In 1950, when a black family attempted to move into the Rogers Park neighborhood, an arsonist burned the home down the night before the family was to move in.

Restrictive covenants were one of the most common tools of Anchorage housing discrimination; covenants are additional real estate agreements between seller and buyer. A representative covenant for the Turnagain Heights subdivision reads: “No race or nationality other than those of the White or Caucasian race shall use or occupy any dwellings on any lot in said Subdivision . . .” These restrictions proliferated in Anchorage after they had been ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. Since they were not legally enforced, racial covenants in Anchorage were socially enforced by the realtors and developers, some of the most powerful and politically connected men in Alaska.

For more context, through the 1950s, the Anchorage Police Department made a habit of harassing black-owned businesses and enforcing an informal segregation. When the Flats was annexed into Anchorage in 1954, APD officers waited outside bars until after midnight so they could legally raid. In 1954, 15-year resident Harold Brown told Jet, “White citizens have been warned to stay out of Negro areas. Some Negro tavern owners were ordered to keep whites out of their business places or face loss of licenses.”

Anchorage City Manager George Shannon denied the accusations and responded by requesting a list of names of black complainants from the city’s African American newspaper, the Alaska Spotlight. Unsurprisingly, the Spotlight’s editor did not supply Miller with a list of black Anchorage residents with grievances against the police department. Brown forwarded a plea for assistance to U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., who declined to intervene.

In the absence of equality and equivalent legal support for the same, protests are one significant method to produce change. Protests can publicly speak truth to power and demonstrate the unification of communities behind a cause. Even the calmest of protests disturb the peace to some extent. They provoke. They irritate norms. But as pioneering social worker Jane Addams said, “True peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”

The next notable minority-led protest in Anchorage came in July 1957. Joseph Jackson and James Owens organized a picket outside the Local 341 Laborers and Hod Carrier Union Hall. Union officials and dispatchers were charged with not dispatching black laborers “to jobs to which their seniority entitles them.” Owens told the Anchorage Daily Times, the picket “was the only way we’re going to get equality.” However, the picket largely failed, and Owens was expelled from the union early the next year.

The most significant civil rights-era protest Anchorage came five years later. The Fairview Carrs was one of the retailers closest to the black-populated Flats. As a result, by the early 1960s, an estimated 30 percent of that Carrs’ clientele were black. However, Carrs management refused to hire blacks for any position that interacted with the public. When pressed on the issue, store management declared, “the time is not right to hire a Negro checker,” and they “already had two Negro employees,” a janitor and garbage collector. According to one black resident present at the time, one of those two hires “became very friendly with a white girl that worked there, so that was the end of that.”

For Joseph Jackson, “We were spending all our money at that store, and they were not giving anything back.” After Carrs ownership refused to meet and discuss the matter with black community leaders, the local NAACP chapter voted to picket the store.

Beginning on July 31, 1962, the picketing of Carrs was the first organized, public protest led by the local NAACP. As the protestors circled Carrs in shifts, onlookers booed and yelled. The nearby Safeway prospered at Carrs’ expense. Protesters bought out Safeway’s supply of lunch meat to feed the picketers. Carrs leadership ended the protest by agreeing to a minimum of three new black hires. After a lengthy delay and many broken promises, Carrs began hiring African Americans for public-facing positions in 1963.

Ocia Mae Curry, the state’s first black postal worker, participated in the picket. Said Curry, “Well it’s like getting a hurting shoe off your foot. You have the right to feel the effect of the freedom, the results of your work. You feel good about it.” One of the new Carrs hires was Richard “Dick” Watts Jr. Watts stayed with Carrs and rose through the ranks. He later managed the Fairview store and retired in 2017 as a statewide director of store operations.

The 1962 Carrs protest was a civil rights breakthrough for Alaska. It set a template for later, successful protests — including Caribou-Wards and Woolworths — and for lasting change.

Key sources:

"Alaska Negro Asks U.S. to Probe Police Brutality,” Jet, September 16, 1954, 8.

Berkley, Charlie Mae “Pat.” Interviewed by Bruce Melzer, Anchorage, c. 1982–1983. Bruce Melzer Oral History Interviews, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections.

Curry, Ocia Mae. Interviewed by Bruce Melzer, Anchorage, c. 1982–1983. Bruce Melzer Oral History Interviews, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections.

“Discrimination Charged Against 3.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 12, 1953, 3.

“Home of Local Minister Hit by Bomb." Anchorage Daily News, March 29, 1965.

Jackson, Joseph. Interviewed by Bruce Melzer, Anchorage, c. 1982–1983. Bruce Melzer Oral History Interviews, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections.

“Jury Clears Café Staff of Count on Discrimination.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 1, 1953, 14.

“Members Picket Local Union.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1957, 1.

Papers of the NAACP. Part 27, Selected branch files, 1956-1965, Series D, the West, reel 1.

“Shannon, Miller Deny Discrimination Charges,” Anchorage Daily Times, August 23, 1954, 1, 9.

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