Black History in the Last Frontier
By Ian C. Hartman. National Park Service/University of Alaska Anchorage. 210 pages. 2020 (Available for free in PDF form)
Sometime in the 1880s, William Shorey, commanding the whaling vessel Harriman, sailed into the Bering Sea, laying eyes on Alaska, the land America had acquired from Russia two decades previously. This is hardly remarkable for the time, except that Shorey was the son of freed slaves in Barbados. He was employed in one of the few industries offering decent wages and a measure of freedom for Black men in the latter decades of 19th century America.
Shorey wasn’t the first Black man to reach Alaska, as we learn from “Black History in the Last Frontier.” In this highly informative book by Ian Hartman, an associate professor of history at University of Alaska Anchorage, we are told it was whaling that brought the earliest Black travelers to Alaska’s waters in the 1840s. That whaling ships off Alaska’s shores carried significant percentages of Black crewmen is largely overlooked now, as is nearly all of Black history in Alaska. It’s a huge void in northern scholarship that desperately needs to be filled. This brief book, more of an overview than an exhaustive study, offers an abundance of starting points for young researchers seeking to examine Alaska history from a position that’s been too frequently ignored.
“African Americans have traveled to Alaska for over 150 years, well before statehood and earlier even than the Klondike gold rush,” Hartman tells us early on. “Black men and women have actively participated in Alaska’s politics, economic development, and culture. They hunted for whales, patrolled the seas, built roads, served in the military, opened businesses, fought injustice, won political office, and forged communities.”
This is the story Hartman tells, beginning with those early whalers and winding his way through the gold rush, two world wars, Alaska’s rapid Cold War urbanization, the Civil Rights era, and onward into the new millennium. It’s the story of Black Americans who migrated into the far north, finding opportunities often denied them elsewhere, yet struggling against the same structural racism they had hoped to escape.
Hartman explores this history through the lives of those who lived it, an approach that humanizes the narrative, making it both accessible and enjoyable for casual readers. We learn, for instance, of Melvin Dempsey, a former slave who fled the South. He caught gold fever and began working and prospecting his way west, ultimately arriving in Valdez in 1898. Well acquainted with the hardships of mining and the poor likelihood of success, he instead opened an inn and restaurant serving new arrivals and launched a Christian reading room and society. He later became a postmaster, and today the Dempsey River bears his name.
We also meet Zula Swanson, who left Alabama and headed west, reaching Anchorage in 1929. There she built a small empire of licit and illicit businesses, established herself in the city, and owned a half million dollars in property — $3 million in today’s dollars — by the time of her death in 1973, a feat that would have been entirely unattainable for her in the Jim Crow South.
Uncle Sam brought many Black Alaskans north, and some remained. From the days when Buffalo Soldiers provided law enforcement in gold rush-era Skagway, to the construction of the Alaska Highway, and on into the present, the military has long been a pipeline for Black migration to Alaska. The pipeline itself also brought Black Americans north seeking work, where they experienced both hard-won successes and standard racism. It’s a recurring theme here.
In his exploration of Black history in Alaska, Hartman uncovers addendums to well known events, where Black Alaskans played key roles since forgotten. For instance, a loophole in the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act was exposed when Robert and Beatrice Coleman were refused service at a Fairbanks cocktail lounge in 1946. The famous civil rights law, the first of its sort in the nation, barred businesses from engaging in discriminatory practices. The authors of the bill had made a clerical error, however. Discrimination remained legal as long as businesses didn’t put it in writing. Spoken policies weren’t covered. The Legislature amended the act the following year thanks to relentless activism by the Colemans. It’s a coda to the story of the work carried out by Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich, which usually ends on the happy note of the bill’s passage.
This book is bulging with such stories, but it also explores the structural issues afflicting Black Alaskans, particularly as the urban centers rapidly expanded after World War II. Black residents of Anchorage were redlined into impoverished districts that the city ignored. Urban renewal initiatives meant Black neighborhoods were demolished to make way for new roads serving white residents from outlying homes. And despite anti-discrimination laws, businesses routinely kept Black employees in menial positions.
Along with the rest of the country, Black Alaskans began pushing hard for civil rights in the 1960s, and Hartman shows how this struggle mirrored the national movement, history in contrast with how Alaskans usually view our culture. “In fact,” he writes, “while Alaskans have applauded themselves for a streak of independence and a general disdain for ‘how they do things Outside,’ its history of racial discrimination on the one hand and civil rights mobilization and activism on the other exposes more commonality with other places than it does exceptional patterns of openness.”
Through a series of individual stories paying homage to the work of many Black Alaskans, Hartman tells the broader story of the Black experience in Alaska. Black history must be known in order to understand Alaska and American history, and this overview offers a vital launching pad for exploring this part of our mutual past. Hopefully the topic, which is beginning to attract attention, will be expanded on by many scholars. Hartman himself has a deeper academic study due for publication later this year, written with Anchorage historian David Reamer. It’s a solid start. Meanwhile, a printed copy of “Black History in the Last Frontier” needs to be placed in every high school library in Alaska.
A free PDF of “Black History in the Last Frontier” can be obtained at the National Park Service website.