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.
Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the first Black attorney to pass the Alaska Bar, was in her Fairview office on East 15th Avenue late one Friday afternoon. Her staff had locked the door and were in the final stages of closing for the weekend. They chatted casually, taking their time, while Dickerson cooked her dinner in the tiny kitchen.
A sharp CRACK suddenly rang through the air, and the building began to sway. The secretary, more recently arrived from Chicago, screamed. Dickerson, with several years experience in Anchorage, calmy declared, “We’re having tremors.” The shaking continued, and the lights went out. “This is lasting too long,” said Dickerson, less calmly than before. Through a window, they watched a man hold desperately to his car as they both bounced on and off the ground.
After about four and a half minutes, the tremors ceased. The wooden office eventually resettled on its pilings. The gas was off, but the water still worked. The damages were minimal: fallen books and a few broken plates. The day was March 27, 1964, and they had just lived through the Great Alaska Earthquake. Dickerson’s most significant loss from the earthquake, she wrote in her memoir, came in the aftershocks when her frightened pet Husky ran away and never returned.
When you think of the 1964 Great Alaska — or Good Friday — Earthquake, what comes to mind? If you have consumed any of the many books, reports and documentaries on the subject, then it is likely some combination of the devastated Turnagain neighborhood, Government Hill landslide, shattered Anchorage downtown, Bootlegger Cove Clay, tsunami waves, rebuilt Valdez, lost Chenega and Genie Chance on the radio. It is still the second-largest recorded earthquake by magnitude. The fatality numbers vary, but the most thorough accounting has the earthquake killing 146 people, nine in Anchorage and others as far away as California.
A tragedy through and through, the 1964 earthquake is a defining point in Alaska and Anchorage history. However, Dickerson’s safe passage through the ordeal is representative of an untold story. Most historians have portrayed the earthquake as a unifying, shared experience. Reality, as per usual, is a lot more complicated. Blacks and other minorities were barred from living in the hardest-hit Anchorage neighborhoods, resulting in disparate earthquake experiences.
Housing discrimination in Anchorage dates to the city’s founding and the expulsion of Alaska Natives from the land. Immigrant laborers from central and southeastern Europe, derisively referred to as bohunks, were also not allowed to settle within the newborn city limits. By the 1940s, housing discrimination had become an explicit part of the Anchorage housing landscape, including “white’s only” classifieds and racially exclusive housing covenants in deeds.
Covenants are additional real estate agreements between seller and buyer codified into the deed. A typical racial housing covenant from a 1949 Turnagain deed 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, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality, if such servants are employed by an owner or tenant.” Racial covenants were made legally unenforceable in 1948 and illegal in 1968. Yet, they proliferated in Anchorage during the 1940s and 1950s due to social enforcement by the city’s political and economic elite.
While no longer legal, these covenants did not disappear. They remain like racist time bombs on deeds from this era. Anchorage Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, whose daughter is Black, told Alaska Public Media in 2020 that she was shocked to learn that the deed for her Rogers Park home includes a racial covenant.
There were few mid-century Anchorage neighborhoods where Black people and other minorities could buy or rent homes. The more open communities included Green Acres and Nunaka Valley. However, most Black people ended up in Eastchester Flats, part of modern-day Fairview between Ingra and Orca Streets and between East 15th Avenue and Chester Creek. In 1952, the Anchorage NAACP estimated that three-quarters of the area’s Black population lived in the Flats, as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people.
Dickerson wound up with an office in Fairview not by choice but by opportunity. No one else would rent to her. She wrote in her memoir, “Being black and female, I had some [difficulties].” Realtors rebuffed her inquiries. “They’d see my black face, and suddenly the property I was inquiring about would mysteriously have just been rented.” The only Anchorage landowner willing to rent her office space did so as a form of therapy. “You see,” Dickerson recalled him saying, “I was a young Nazi under Hitler and I wanted to be sure that I was cured — that I was not really that kind of person inside — and it did me good to rent you that office.”
As the histories of Anchorage and the 1964 earthquake generally omit the experiences of minorities, they also generally omit what happened in the rest of the city. Even as far back as 1964, Anchorage had spread far wider than the downtown center and a few Knik Arm-hugging neighborhoods. Due to several natural features, the Great Alaska Earthquake made a far milder impact on Fairview, Mountain View, Airport Heights, Russian Jack and the other inland area neighborhoods. Dickerson later wrote, “Fortunately, our poor section of town, Fairview, was blessed with good gravel soil.”
Joe Jackson, one of Anchorage’s first Black realtors, had an office on East 15th Avenue near Ingra Street. He was in California at the time of the earthquake, and the news coverage led him to believe all of Anchorage was leveled. When he returned, he instead found his office a little shifted, with a few downed ceiling tiles, but otherwise still standing. Weddings continued as planned at Greater Friendship Baptist Church, the first Black church in Alaska located at East 13th Avenue and Ingra Street. A Russian Jack resident later said, “The house made it fine through it. I mean, stuff came out the cupboards ... but there was no real damage other than the sidewalks. All were cracked afterwards.”
Those poorer neighborhoods became a refuge for the wealthier displaced. Future two-time Governor of Alaska Wally Hickel lived in Turnagain. After the earthquake, his family — Wally was in Japan — sought shelter at the Traveler’s Inn, now Travel Inn, in Fairview. Jackson told the Anchorage Times in 1978, “Three kids slept in [my office] for three days, and I still don’t know their names.”
Jet, a national Black magazine, picked up on the dark irony of the minority experience during the Anchorage earthquake. They sardonically noted, “housing discrimination . . . spared the brothers up in Anchorage, Alaska, the wrath of the city’s recent violent earthquake. Negroes are systematically barred from the exclusive areas near the business center — the area hardest hit by the cataclysm.”
George Anderson, the publisher of Anchorage’s Black newspaper, the Alaska Spotlight, went a step further. He described the earthquake as the “Passover” in a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper. “Homes occupied by Negroes were left standing,” wrote Anderson, “while closeby buildings were completely wrecked.” He called out a Black-owned barbershop near downtown left standing while surrounding buildings fell. He also noted, “No Negroes were killed or even injured.”
The impact of the Great Alaska Earthquake in Anchorage runs counter to historical patterns. People of color in America have long born a disproportionate brunt of natural and manmade environmental disasters, including the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, 1948 Vanport Flood outside Portland, Oregon, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The delayed official response to Tuluksak’s water crisis is a more recent and closer to home example.
Of course, it was not merely a racial but an economic difference between the residents of a largely leveled neighborhood like Turnagain and a largely intact neighborhood like Fairview. In her memoir, Dickerson described the disaster as the “Rich Man’s Earthquake.” She elaborated: “It had always been well known that downtown soil was really mud, but the rich people owned the downtown land, so that’s where the town grew.” The expansion of Gambell and Ingra Streets in the late 1960s established a major traffic corridor through a primarily residential Fairview. This project was a direct result of post-earthquake planning and more typical of the negative environmental impacts more heavily experienced by the socially and economically disadvantaged.
Unfortunately for Black residents, the earthquake made the “earthquake proof” Flats, as Anderson described it, more appealing to developers. The city and state accelerated plans for urban renewal for the area, a process marked by lies and corruption that forced residents to relocate. By 1970, there was no Flats. The homes could endure natural disasters, but their neighborhood could not stand in the way of potential profits.
Dickerson, Mahala Ashley. “Delayed Justice for Sale: An Autobiography.” Anchorage: Al-Acres, Inc., 1998.
Fothergill, Alice, Enrique G. M. Maestas, and JoAnne DeRouen Darlington. “Race, Ethnicity, and Disasters in the United States: A Review of the Literature,” Disasters 23, no. 2 (1999): 156–73.
“He Doesn’t Live in Anchorage.” Anchorage Times, January 22, 1978, C-2.
Hughes, Zachariah. “Illegal for Decades, Many Anchorage Homes Still Have Covenants that Prohibit Sale to Blacks and Alaska Natives.” Alaska Public Media, February 28, 2020.
Mielke, Coleen. “1964 Alaska Earthquake Fatalities.” 2020, freepages.rootsweb.com/~coleen/genealogy/1964%20alaska%20earthquake.html.
“People are Talking About.” Jet, April 30, 1964, 42.
Reamer, David. An Oral & Written History of the Russian Jack Community: Past, Present, & Future. NeighborWorks Alaska, 2017.
Schuyler, George S. “Views and Reviews.” Pittsburgh Courier, May 2, 1964, 10.
“Weddings.” Jet, May 14, 1964, 39.