Books

Behind a spectacular Alaska road, a fraught history of racism, perseverance and court-martial

“A Different Race: World War II, The Alaska Highway, Racism, and a Court-Martial”

By Christine & Dennis McClure, Little Lands End Publishing, 250 pages, 2021. $19.95

Plenty of Alaskans have driven the Tok Cutoff without much thought for how the road got there. Beginning at Gakona Junction on the Richardson Highway, the spectacularly beautiful route travels northwest over Mentasta Summit and down into Tok along the Alaska Highway.

The road was initially built in 1942 to provide access to the corridor where the Alaska Highway was being built at a furious pace. And as Christine and Dennis McClure document in their new book, “A Different Race,” building the road led to an incident that highlighted how Black Americans could come north in the peak of the Jim Crow era, still find themselves subjected to the whims of the white people in charge, and be harshly disciplined for something they did not deserve punishment for.

Most Alaskans are familiar with part of this story. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the federal government, already hyper-alert to the vulnerability of its northern territory to military assault from the Pacific, poured men and equipment into Alaska and the Yukon to build a supply road north. It’s also widely known that many of the men put to work on this job were part of segregated units of the Army Corps of Engineers, Black Americans conscripted and put to work on one of the more challenging civil engineering jobs of the war.

For the McClures, both of them Army vets and Dennis a historian, this is their second book about Black soldiers building the Alcan, following on the heels of their 2017 work “We Fought the Road.” If anything, “A Different Race” is even better. The couple write well and document their work extensively, but this time they narrow their focus to the 97th Engineers, crafting a more tightly focused narrative that shows both how hard the men worked to build the road, and how unfairly they were treated despite this fact.

[Related: Book remembers black soldiers who endured racism, harsh environment to build a highway to Alaska]

Many of the men in the 97th grew up poor in the South, where they’d had limited educational opportunities in states that kept them suppressed. They also had little to no experience with winter, many having never seen a snowflake prior to being shipped to Alaska.

The McClures show how the regiment was chosen and detail their journey north through Valdez. In 1942, Black soldiers were barred from mixing with white civilians, and the Army worked hard to keep the barrier in place.

The men arrived in port before Thompson Pass had opened for the season, and much of the early part of this book is about the classic military tactic known as hurry up and wait, even as, also in classic rushed military project style, logistics and supply chains quickly emerged as larger hurdles than the job itself.

The Richardson Highway in 1942 was fairly primitive, but the men made it to Gakona and began clearing a path to the Tok River. Initially progress was slow, owing to poor leadership, but a command shakeup improved things and the men began making remarkable time. With a couple of key archive photos and some vivid prose, the authors leave readers in awe of how hard the men worked.

And this was just to get to the Alcan itself. Upon reaching what is now the location of the community of Tok, they headed out in two directions to meet crews coming down from Delta and up through the Yukon, rushing to complete the road before winter set in.

That the men were able to accomplish so much so quickly led in part to the incident that takes up the final third of this story. In the remote woods of Alaska in 1942, where everything had to be figured out on the spot, standard military discipline was relaxed somewhat. Construction functioned better when run like a civilian contracting operation than a military project. The men even reached the border with Canada ahead of the white unit pushing through the Yukon. They figured out what needed doing and did it.

The McClures describe this time as a bit of lifting of the hand of Jim Crow, but once the roadway had been fully connected, that illusion of freedom quickly vaporized. The 97th regiment was ordered to stay the winter and keep the road — technically far from finished — open for traffic. This put them in one of the most frigid regions of Alaska during what proved to be a record cold year. They were housed in tents, their clothing was insufficient to the point of nearly being useless, and their new commander — their third in under a year — had boundless self confidence coupled with absolutely no understanding of where he was.

The men did their best, the McClures write. “Hibernating in their tents, they survived by looking out for each other, by having each other’s backs.” Sgt. James Heard, the highest ranked Black man in the regiment, did in fact have their backs, and when 2nd Lt. Robert Lyon ordered 10 of the men to leave for Fairbanks on a minus 34 degree morning, riding in the back of a truck, clad in lightweight clothing, he knew it was potentially deadly. He objected. The men initially refused to climb into the truck. They were arrested and charged with mutiny, for which the penalty was execution.

How it turned out is for readers to discover, but this book is important for more than the fascinating story it tells. Black history in Alaska simply has not been explored on the level it needs to be. With this tale we see how the Black experience in Alaska intersects with the broader history of Alaska, and how America’s painful racial history up to the point of this incident drove the events that resulted from a single moment, when Black soldiers were mistreated in ways white soldiers weren’t.

Black history is both Alaskan history and American history, and we cannot know American and Alaskan history without knowing the experience of Black Alaskans and Black Americans. As “A Different Race” shows, we need more of it.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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