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Breaking barriers, breaking trail: the legacy of Bettye Davis

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 6, 2018
  • Published December 5, 2018

Bettye Davis takes a lead over Don Smith in their school board race as she watches Tuesday April 2, 2013 at election central at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. (Erik Hill / ADN)

Looking back at the life and career of former Alaska Sen. Bettye Davis, her colleague Georgianna Lincoln remembers the ravens.

“In the Senate, I had a picture of five ravens, and it’s called ‘The Caucus’,” said Lincoln, herself a former senator whose entire 14-year legislative career overlapped with Davis'. “And that’s what we were. Five ravens, five Democrats. We laughed about being in the minority, because that’s what we always have been. A minority as women, a minority as representatives of our races. Being outnumbered never bothered us.”

In a decades-long career in politics and public service, Davis, who died this week at age 80, often found herself in the position of breaking new ground. She was the first black woman elected to the Alaska House of Representatives. She was the first black Alaskan elected to the Senate. Throughout her time in office, the Anchorage Democrat was often relegated to a lonely minority in the state capitol, but she didn’t let that dampen her advocacy for education and other issues she championed.

“She didn’t mind speaking her mind, speaking up at a time when that was uncommon,” said Celeste Hodge Growden, a colleague and friend of Davis who worked for her during part of her time in the Legislature. “She would always go to bat, even sometimes when she was doing it alone.”

Born in Louisiana, Davis moved to Anchorage in the early 1970s, working as a nurse and social worker at Alaska Psychiatric Institute before beginning an 11-year tenure on the Anchorage School District School Board. East Anchorage voters elected Davis to the House in 1990, where she served three terms, followed by a successful Senate run in 2000. She served in the Senate until 2012, and returned to the school board to bookend her career. Her second stint on the school board lasted until her resignation for health and family reasons earlier this year. She was 80 years old when she died earlier this week.

By the accounts of legislative friends and foes alike, Davis was a passionate advocate for her causes, fighting for more representation for people of color and a strong public education system. In a news release Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy recognized Davis as an education champion. “She and I just bonded, instantly,” said Lincoln, herself the first (and, so far, only) Alaska Native woman elected to the Senate. “And we were friends to the end. We called each other ‘sister.’”

“She was dedicated to all Alaska. I represented rural Alaska, Bush Alaska primarily, and Bettye represented urban,” Lincoln said. “But I never saw that. She asked, ‘How does this affect your village?’ She was a stateswoman for all Alaska, and that’s how I always viewed her.”

Former Sen. Bettye Davis, right, who helped secure funding for playground equipment, meets third graders from nearby Scenic Park Elementary School at a ribbon cutting Thursday afternoon, September 12, 2013, in Scenic Park.

Though she was part of the minority caucus in the Legislature, it didn’t stop her from working across the aisle with Republican colleagues to advance her priorities, whether on education or child services such as Denali KidCare. “If there was an obstacle, she’d find away around it,” Growden said.

Decades ago, Growden said, Davis hosted an ambitious African-American summit that tackled issues in Alaska’s communities of people of color. In the years and years since, there has never been a second summit, but one is planned for next February, during Black History Month. It will be dedicated to Davis and her legacy.

“As a woman, she paved the way,” Growden said, fighting back tears. “As an African-American, she set the trail.”

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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