Culture

Giving the black soldiers who built the Alaska Highway their due

The Tundra Vision Lecture Series will present author Lael Morgan in a presentation about African-American troops who built the Alaska Highway at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday, May 26, in the community room of the Mountain View Branch Library.

Morgan is the journalist whom Jean Pollard, chair of the Alaska Highway Project, credits with "breaking the story" about the black construction battalions in World War II.

[Black soldiers' work on Alaska Highway commemorated]

The long, thin ribbon of road was built in record time over previously unsurveyed and untracked wilderness. The Army engineers assigned to the project suffered mightily from severe cold, clouds of mosquitoes, ice, muck, lousy equipment and poor supplies. But they succeeded in creating what remains Alaska's only overland connection to the Lower 48 — with the exception of a road out of the tiny settlement of Hyder.

It was never an official secret that black troops were involved in the construction, but their role was severely downplayed until Morgan revealed the enormous extent of their contribution. Those contributions went beyond just building the road, important as that is to modern Alaska. It also led directly to the full integration of American armed forces in the years that followed the war. Pollard described it as one of the most important steps leading to the expansion of civil rights in the 1960s.

In addition to Morgan's talk, which will start at 7 p.m., state Representative Gabrielle LeDoux will present a legislative citation honoring the role of the African-American engineers to Pollard, a retired teacher who, LeDoux said, brought the history of the soldiers to her attention.

The Tundra Vision Lecture Series began in January and has presented regular lectures on assorted topics of the fourth Thursday of each month. Their motto is "Bring People Together through History." The lectures are free.

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The Alaska Highway Project has been involved with several other activities to make the new generation of Alaskans aware of the highway's history. They arranged for three benches to be installed on the hill above the amphitheater in Cuddy Family Park. Plaques honoring the black soldiers were originally attached to the benches but appear to have been destroyed by vandals and weather. Pollard said more durable plaques will be installed at a future time.

Pollard informed us about one of the former engineers, Reginald Beverly, a retired math teacher now living in Richmond, Virginia, whom she met a couple of years ago. "Mr. Beverly asked me to let Governor Walker know about him and to tell him that the year 2017 will represent the 75th anniversary of the building of the Alaska Highway," she reported. "Therefore, Mr. Beverly would like to come to Alaska at that time and be a guest speaker for the 75th anniversary."

Beverly will be 102 next year.

In a related item, the Dorothy G. Page Museum in Wasilla is hosting an exhibit titled "Engineering in the Far North: The Army Corps of Engineers," with material on loan from the Corps and the Alaska Veterans Museum. It will be on display through June 24.

'Bogeyman' hits the road

David Holthouse's play "Stalking the Bogeyman," which had its West Coast premiere at University of Alaska Anchorage in April, will travel to five Alaska cities over the next several weeks. The gripping story about child abuse and plans for vengeance will be presented May 27-28 at Glenn Massay Theater on the Mat-Su College Campus, where all proceeds will be donated to My House Mat-Su, a new youth homeless shelter.

['Bogeyman,' a true story of rape and revenge]

"Bogeyman" will then play at Homer High School's Mariner Theatre on June 3, the Seward High School Theatre on June 5, the Valdez Civic Center as part of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference on June 14-15 and finally at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Salisbury Theatre. The tour has been made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Innovate Award, the Harper Touring Grant, the Alaska Children's Trust and private donors.

Director Brian Cook, his cast and crew are looking forward to the possibility of staging the production at other Alaska sites.

Registration opens for writers' conference

The Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference is now taking registrations for its 15th annual event, scheduled for Land's End Resort in Homer June 10-14. The keynote presenter will be former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Workshops will include readings, graft talks and panel discussions on both the creative and business aspects of successful writing. Manuscript reviews, consultations and a boat cruise will be available. The ever-popular open mic events and free evening readings by visiting writers will also be on the schedule. A post-conference workshop will be held at Tutka Bay Lodge on the south side of Kachemak Bay.

Registration, $400, includes five meals and the evening receptions. Information is available at writersconference.homer.alaska.edu

Sitka writing program receives $20,000 grant

Story Lab, a storytelling and creative writing program for youth run by the Island Institute of Sitka, has been awarded a $20,000 LRNG Educator Innovator Challenge grant from the National Writing Project. The lab, which presented its application in conjunction with the Sitka School District, was one of 11 programs around the country selected from 164 applicants.

Story Lab offers in- and after-school storytelling and creative writing workshops to Southeast Alaskan youth ages 5-19. The idea is that experimenting with creativity through storytelling and creative writing strengthens students' confidence, communication skills and empathy. The free workshops have been given to 500 students in Sitka and Southeast so far.

LRNG, by the way, is not an acronym. The organization's name is "learning" with all the vowels removed. Sort of like the language of TXTNG.

Winners of ACC competition

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The recipients of the Anchorage Concert Chorus scholarship competition were selected on May 14 and gave a well-attended recital that evening along with winners of other local music competitions.

Eli Neslund won first place in the High School Division, followed by Emma Broyles and Evelyn Rose Rush. The College Division was won by Kaylee Miltersen, with Amanda Boger and Kira Eckenweiler in second and third place, respectively. First place winners in each division received $730. Prizes of $500 went to the second place finishers and $300 for third place.

Next year's competition is scheduled for May 13 and will, as always, conclude with the best free concert you're likely to hear. Mark those calendars now.

Library returns to regular hours

To the relief of library patrons, the Loussac Library will return to normal operating hours starting May 23. That's 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. The Innovation Lab on the fourth floor and the Alaska Room in the side turret, will also reopen. But most importantly, the two public elevators will be back in operation.

For the past several weeks, as part of a major renovation, people trying to get to the books had to take small, slow elevators usually reserved for staff shuttling carts from one level to another. The jam of people trying to get to the second floor or back to the ground floor often meant several waits until one could fit into the next available load. The stairs were closed or we would cheerfully have been using them.

"We are so grateful about how gracious and understanding our patrons have been during this difficult time," said director Mary Jo Torgeson in a press release. And, frankly, it was heartening to see so many people so interested in reading that they put up with the inconvenience.

Just be aware that "access may still be impacted" as reconstruction continues. That means, be prepared to get to the shelf you want via a route you've never seen before.

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The Innovation Lab will actually be up and running on Saturday, May 21, when comedy author Jenny Lawson will discuss her memoir, "Let's Pretend This Didn't Happen," via the Online With Libraries, or OWL, connection at 3 p.m. (By the way, it looks like funding for the OWL program is coming to an end.) And Children's Storytime will resume on May 31.

Railroad photo contest opens

The Alaska Railroad's "Catch the Train" Photo Contest will be taking entries through Dec. 11. Eighteen winners will be selected and their photos will grace the 18-month calendar and the railroad's onboard magazine. All winners will get a round-trip ticket for two to the ARR destination of their choice. A Grand Prize Winner, selected by the public from the 18 accepted photos, will receive round-trip tickets for four and a $1,500 cash prize.

Submit photos of at least 1000 pixels via Facebook at www.facebook.com/alaskarailroad, on Instagram at @alaskarailroad, or Twitter at @akrr using the hashtag #CatchTheTrainAK.

More information and rules will be found at alaskarailroad.com/catchthetrain.

Hickel was right

The Alaska Crafted Festival in the Dena'ina Center on Saturday evening will include some of the distilled spirits now being made in the state along with the familiar beers of the last frontier. That's actually not what we're writing about here, but a notice in conjunction with the festival caught our attention. Alaskan Brewing of Juneau, which has been boiling up award-winning beers since 1986 announced that it expects to have its products distributed in Ohio in the near future. That will be a new farthest-east for the company.

Reading the press release, we were reminded of the late Governor Walter Hickel's idea of shipping Alaska water to thirsty markets in the Lower 48 via pipeline. Some called it an improbable dream, but here it is, actually happening now. As we see it, the big difference between Wally's wild idea and the Juneau entrepreneurs' reality is that Alaska water, with a little processing, is being shipped to the states 12 ounces at a time in bottles and cans.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.

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