Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act: An achievement and a necessity

The Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 is one of the best-known pieces of legislation in Alaska history. The act addressed a terrible wrong -- discrimination in public accommodations and facilities -- and was championed by a charismatic Native leader, Elizabeth Peratrovich. The measure also had the support of Gov. Ernest Gruening, a brilliant lawmaker and skillful writer. Gruening told the story of the legislation a number of times -- with a keen sense of disappointment the measure was necessary, yet pride that Alaskans recognized its importance.

When adopted, the act was the first of its kind in an American territory or state. New York, Gruening's home state, passed a statute banning employment discrimination a few weeks later. The Alaska legislation, it is fair to say, was radical. A statute that guaranteed equal accommodations in hotels, inns, restaurants, soda fountains, taverns, roadhouses, barber shops, beauty parlors, theaters and all "amusements" was an anathema to much of the country.

Many states were segregated by law in 1945, and other states permitted discrimination to flourish in public places. Musicians, athletes, actors and others who earned a living on the road were well aware that at the end of World War II public accommodations frequently were public only for whites. The famed Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins against discrimination occurred a decade and a half after the Alaska law took effect.

One has to wonder why Alaska chose to address discrimination in public places while New York chose employment. Perhaps lawmakers in the two jurisdictions were responding to the primary concern of their constituents -- or knew what their constituents would accept from their Legislature.

In one respect, the wording of the Alaska statute is curious. The drafter says all "citizens" shall be entitled to equal accommodations. Why not "people" or "persons"? It is easy to see the problem many immigrants would face with the word "citizens," especially these days. I'm guessing "citizens" is elevated rhetoric, replacing the more pedestrian terms. Americans, about to achieve total victory in World War II, saw themselves as citizens of a great country (even if some did not have citizenship papers).

Telling of the story of the anti-discrimination act usually ends in a celebratory image. A photograph of Gruening signing the bill while Peratrovich looks on in approval. The message is powerful -- here is a triumphant moment in the history of American democracy -- but incomplete.

What happened after the signing ceremony? Should we accept Gruening at face value when he said in his autobiography, "A new era in Alaska's racial relations had begun?" Are we supposed to believe that Alaskans were so law abiding -- or enlightened -- that discrimination in public places disappeared?


Certainly open displays of discrimination as formal business policy disappeared. The territorial statute criminalized "any printed or written sign indicating a discrimination on racial grounds. ..." A "No Natives" sign was a misdemeanor that could cost the sign displayer as much as 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

In other words, a new era began because the law could be enforced -- and was.

I have no idea how many people filed complaints about public accommodation discrimination, but I did find several in federal archives. The first was from Fairbanks in November 1946 when Beatrice Coleman and Robert Coleman were refused service by Hill's Bar on Second Avenue. The Colemans complained to law enforcement, and on Nov. 26, a U.S. Commissioner found Hill's guilty of discrimination and imposed a $50 fine. (Commissioners were territorial judicial officials similar to today's magistrates.)

I met Beatrice Coleman in the 1970s. She was black.

The second discrimination case is from Anchorage. In October 1951, Melvin C. Ward had a room reservation in the downtown Parsons Hotel but was turned away by the manager, Bruce Kendall. A judge fined Kendall the $250 maximum on his December nolo contendere plea.

The matter came to the attention of law enforcement because District Attorney Earl Cooper subpoenaed Ward, who lived in Kodiak, to an Anchorage trial. After Cooper heard his witness had been forced to walk the streets until 4:30 in the morning, he asked for the maximum fine, noting that Kendall's plea avoided a trial which "might further bring attention to the question of racial discrimination. ..." (Ward's race was not made clear in news accounts or court records).

Bruce Kendall (1919-2012) was a successful hotelier and businessman well known to Alaskans in the years before and after statehood. He served in the state House, and after the 1962 election, his GOP colleagues elected him speaker. In 1966, Kendall ran for governor but was defeated by fellow hotelier Wally Hickel in the GOP primary. No doubt as a candidate for public office, he preferred not to discuss his discrimination conviction.

Ernest Gruening should have been proud of the public accommodation law. But there were businessmen who ignored the statute -- and eventually were forced to pay for their discrimination.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Michael Carey

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.