How some Anchorage neighbors redeemed the city's racist past

A history presentation in Fairview a few weeks ago got me thinking about the courage and hard work by which a community overcomes the legacy of racism.

Thirty years ago, Fairview was dangerous. Crack dealers stood in the middle of intersections selling through the windows of cars arriving from around the city.

The racial rules of the past had created a ghetto of concentrated poverty and crime, racial rules enforced by law and violence.

But Fairview today feels better, safer and more diverse. Housing remains affordable and the streets are a little gritty but now Fairview is a place where families invest.

A University of Alaska Anchorage history student, David Reamer, came to the Fairview Community Council to present research on Fairview and racism. He got a lesson, too, as residents spoke up about the fights for civil rights and neighborhood integrity they had personally participated in.

When Anchorage was born, most Americans supported discrimination. The city's federally employed founder, Andrew Christensen, designated areas for whites, immigrants, Alaska Natives and African-Americans. Those early patterns echoed on through the century that followed.

African-Americans populated the red light district, with its bootleggers, brothels, gambling dens and music. In a feud with the U.S. Forest Service, Christensen moved them onto its land, along Chester Creek.

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As the city grew, that area, known as Chester Flats, later East Chester Flats and finally the larger Fairview, became an island surrounded by all-white subdivisions. African-Americans could only live in Fairview or a few other areas, including Greene Acres, near Lake Otis Parkway and 36th Avenue.

Elsewhere, they were kept from buying land by deed covenants and bankers' refusal to lend. Covenants covered property in Turnagain, downtown, Rogers Park and other neighborhoods.

John Fournelle, a University of Wisconsin scientist, did some of the best research on these issues as he dug into family history related to Alaska. He found a 1949 Rogers Park deed that stated, "The property hereby conveyed shall not be sold or alienated in any manner whatsoever to other than Americans of the white race."

Individual acts of prejudice enforced the rules. On Oct. 15, 1950, the unfinished home of a black family in Rogers Park, the Campbells, burned before they could move in. The house stood near today's intersection of East 27th Avenue and Redwood Street. The Anchorage Times linked the fire to race.

In 2011, Fournelle visited Mary Lee Campbell, still living in Anchorage. She said a land owner in the area named Gatlin approached Alvin Campbell at church. He said the Campbells could build the house but would never enjoy it. The house caught fire the next day. She said firefighters watched it burn.

The Fair Housing Act outlawed racial zoning in 1968, but fixing the problems it created is a work in progress.

Without seeing their own hypocrisy, city leaders who created the conditions for Fairview's failure used that failure as an excuse to dump society's problems there.

Zoning and the location of social services concentrated the poor, transients, street alcoholics, sex offenders and the homeless mentally ill in Fairview. Commercial strips with high-speed traffic sliced the neighborhood, creating dead zones.

But in the 1980s, a crop of leaders began to fight back. Over two decades, the neighborhood got a health center and a recreation center, a new school, a new look and reduced street crime.

I knew these folks, as I represented the area on the Anchorage Assembly from 1993 to 1999. They were of all races. Many have passed away. I wish I could mention them all.

Charles and Celeste Benson led the Fairview Community Council for years, giving the neighborhood a voice with continuity and staying power.

Ruth Moulton fought liquor stores that made their money peddling to street drunks and social services she felt concentrated and enabled them.

Allen Kemplen, who had moved in with his family in the late 1980s, got involved when his house was broken into. He went to a council meeting to demand they do something and ended up helping manage the community patrol.

Grady Ward, a carpenter and a sharecropper's son from Texas, was one of the patrol's heroes. I remember him for his dignity and charm, truly of the old school. But he was also brave. Ward would drive right up to the dealers and tell them to get out of the street.

"He'd say, 'What you guys are doing is wrong,'" Kemplen recalled. "He stood up for the neighborhood at great personal risk to himself."

Kemplen, who later served in the Alaska Legislature, came up with the idea of redesigning Fairview's streets to divert cut-through traffic, complicating the dealers' business. Mayor Rick Mystrom supported the idea, rebuilding 15th Avenue and installing street features to slow neighborhood traffic.

Those features have spread across town, with wider sidewalks, raised intersections, speed humps and landscaping that psychologically slows drivers. They make city streets into neighborhood streets. That attracts families, which, in turn, helps create stability and the upward spiral of community.

At the history presentation at the council meeting, Reamer made the mistake of saying the city gave those improvements to Fairview. Kemplen set him straight. No one gave Fairview anything.

Kemplen was only one of the people present who heard his or her accomplishments described as history. Gwendolyn Alexander listened, for example, as Reamer told the story of protests that forced the Carrs grocery store on Gambell Street to hire black clerks — she was one of the first.

Change came because neighbors fought for their community. They are still fighting. When the history talk was done, work continued on new issues.

These battles aren't explicitly racial. In fact, most of the council's leaders over the years were white, as were the majority of the 45 in attendance at the February meeting. But the work of building a livable city for everyone is one of the best ways to right the racial wrongs of the past.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.