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A stone for the Chief: Black Anchorage leader who passed as white honored with memorial

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2015

The 1930 Anchorage census tells us this about Thomas S. Bevers: He was 39 years old, male, married, white, a veteran of the World War and the city's fire chief.

But his final resting place was unmarked until Thursday, when an honor guard from the Anchorage Fire Department unveiled a headstone for him at a ceremony in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

As his job title suggests, Bevers was more important than the average roustabout hoping to strike it rich -- or maybe just get by -- in the far-off territory of Alaska. He arrived in Anchorage in 1921 and served as a volunteer fireman. The ladder wagons were pulled by horses and the pumps were worked by hand.

By 1930, he was in the front ranks of city leaders, a man of property, a landlord, a partner in a major fur farm on 10th Avenue. He became involved with civic causes that included building a new hospital and Merrill Field. His ongoing business ventures ranged from establishing the Fairview neighborhood (originally Bevers Subdivision) to part-ownership of the Buffalo Mine near Chickaloon.

He was a member of the Anchorage Boosters Club who loved to give visitors tours of Anchorage while extolling its possibilities. Most famously, he co-founded the Fur Rendezvous winter festival.

In 1922 Bevers became the first paid fireman in the city. He retired from the position of chief in 1940 and ran for city council in 1941, winning the office with 772 votes.

In October 1944, during a duck hunting trip on the north side of Knik Arm, he went to bed and quietly died of a heart attack. An editorial in the Anchorage Times lamented, "Anchorage (has) lost one of its best friends and leaders."

He had no immediate family in the territory. The 1940 census listed him as single. Officials summoned a sister in Virginia to come and claim the body.

Upon her arrival, his friends and business partners did a double take. She was clearly African-American.

So was Bevers, it turned out. With light skin and European facial features, he had successfully passed as Caucasian for a quarter of a century in the Last Frontier.

"Everyone thought he was a white man," said Don Smith, former city assemblyman and Bevers' godchild. "His sister was very black. They said, 'You can't be Tom's sister,' but it turned out she was."

Smith said his father had been a volunteer fireman when he first came to Anchorage. The men were only paid per fire, about 40 in any given year, but the firehouse provided a place to sleep and meals for newcomers. Many of the volunteers considered Bevers a father figure and benefactor.

But 1930 wasn't the only time Bevers may have fooled the census-taker. The 1940 census records his age as 42 and shifts his birth year from 1891 to 1898. On paper he'd aged only three years since 1930. His race was still listed as white.

Questioning what a person said about himself would have been considered nosey bad manners in those days. A good number of people in the territory were, in a sense, "passing" as someone they were not, fudging their names, birth dates, where they'd come from and what happened to make them leave.

It's likely that Bevers would not have gotten the job as chief had his race been known. But after the fact -- and once they got over the shock -- Bevers' friends saw no reason to change their high opinion of him.

The Chief, after all, had been part of their revels. He'd contributed time and money to good causes. He was the man in uniform they'd watched taking charge, risking himself to save life and property when fires broke out in the middle of the night. They remembered him as the public servant who rushed to the station and had his men and engines ready to squelch any conflagrations after the big earthquake of October 1936 rather than attending to his own damaged apartment building. They spoke of how, while still a volunteer fireman, he'd helped extinguish the Jonesville coal fire, a potential catastrophe that could have crippled both the Alaska Railroad and Anchorage in their infancy.

Residents figured that whether or not Bevers was a black man, his diligence, particularly with regard to fire safety, was an important reason why their city had not suffered the fate of Nome, Nenana and other Alaska towns wiped out by blazes in the 1930s.

Audrey Weltman Kelly, co-organizer of the annual "Tales in the Cemetery" events along with her husband, Bruce, said the chain of events that led to Bevers being interred in Anchorage rather than being brought back to Virginia is unclear. It's thought that the sister was impressed with the hospitality she received. The writer of the "Back Inside" blog site says, "When (she) saw the impact he had made here, and how proud the citizens were of all that he had done, she decided to let him be buried in Anchorage, where he was honored and loved."

Kelly feels that the Masonic funeral was probably a big deal, given several newspaper stories about his death. But the grave was probably marked only by a wooden cross that crumbled into the elements after a few years. Some 3,000 such markers were lost to decay or vandalism by the 1980s, said cemetery director Rob Jones.

Kelly said efforts to get the tombstone began 10 years ago. "Bevers came to our attention when Bruce and I took over the John Bagoy Solstice Tour back in 2005," she said. "We were unsuccessful in our attempts to get funding for a marker for him until this year."

A stone marker was donated by Mat-Su Memorials with additional funds from public donations. Several members of the Anchorage Fire Department were present for the unveiling on Thursday. The small crowd included Kevin McGee of the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP, who said, "I just found out yesterday. I had to be here." And Anchorage actor Todd Sherwood, who has presented the character of Bevers at "Tales in the Cemetery," was there too.

"I did the character over there," Sherwood said, pointing to a spot west of the headstone. "They don't know for certain where he is."

Indeed, the precise location of Bevers' remains are unknown, so the headstone was placed near other unknown Masonic markers. With the loss of so many markers and incomplete records, it's impossible to say that anyone knows for sure where all the bodies are buried.

The event brought out a number of stories about the Chief. Deputy Chief Jim Vignola brought up an apocryphal tale of how Bevers was called to a city council meeting that he did not want to attend. He surreptitiously tossed some tear gas powder in an ash tray and, upon flicking his cigar into it, cleared the room and ended the meeting.

Research from the Cook Inlet Historical Society gives his birth date as March 30, 1889, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and his parents as William and Mary Beavers (sic). His draft card lists his race as "African." He may have worked as a metal worker in Seattle in 1920. The 1940 census indicates that he had some years of college, but no degree.

Bevers' business partners included Emil Pfeil, with whom he owned an apartment building and store property at Fourth Avenue and E Street. In 1976, Pfeil's daughter Muriel, who would have known Bevers as a girl, was killed by a car bomb in one of the most sensational murders in Anchorage history.

The stone reads, "Thomas Stoke Bevers: 1889-1944" and lists some of his accomplishments. The name of the sister who came to Anchorage is still unknown.

In the short ceremony, Vignola acted as master of ceremonies. Kelly gave a short synopsis of Bevers' life and AFD Chaplain Victor Marburg said a prayer in which he observed that the real memorials to Bevers' life are the men and women of the fire department who have followed in his footsteps and "keep Alaska a safe place."

As Marburg closed the prayer, an emergency call came in. A distant siren was heard. Four firemen in work gear left the plot, ran to their truck and quickly drove off to where they were needed.

Correction: Photo captions in an earlier version of this story incorrectly described Thomas Bevers as Anchorage's first fire chief. He was the city's first paid firefighter, not the first fire chief.

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