Community collaboration enriches a new view of Black life in Alaska

SPONSORED: Museum curators partnered with community members and private collectors to explore the lived experience of Black Alaskans.

Presented by the Anchorage Museum

I don’t want to pass down the hardships of being Black to my kids, I want to pass down the good, the stuff that they can be proud of and the accomplishments and a strong culture and history. That’s legit Black joy to me.

-- Jasmin Smith, Anchorage entrepreneur, teacher, consultant, community activist and mother

Museum exhibitions are often planned years in advance. There is research to be done, collaboration and conversations to be had, loans to arrange, exhibition design and fabrication to take place, and events to organize.

“But museums also believe in making things happen,” Anchorage Museum Director and CEO Julie Decker said. “We want to reflect the conversations in real time and to be a space for conversations that can’t wait years to be had.”

That’s the motivation behind “Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy,” which runs from April 30 to Nov. 30, 2021 at the Anchorage Museum. Decker said the exhibition is a community effort to initiate a broader, long-term conversation -- and to lay the groundwork for developing more exhibitions and programs that capture ideas, stories and perspectives related to Black lives in Alaska.

Assembling a team of advisers

The idea for “Black Lives in Alaska” started to germinate last fall, after a summer of nationwide protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin.

Around the same time, the museum began working to identify and address shortfalls in its own effort to build a comprehensive archive of Alaska histories and culture. Julie Varee, the museum’s community outreach archivist, is working to expand the archives to be more inclusive of communities that aren’t currently well-represented. “Black Lives in Alaska” presented an opportunity to do double duty, feeding both a public exhibition and the permanent archives.

“This exhibition just connects beautifully with the work we are doing to help make sure that more community members and communities are represented in the museum’s collections through more inclusive archives,” Varee said.

An exhibition about Black Alaskans couldn’t be created without the involvement and investment in the people whose stories were being told. Knowing that the exhibition would be about more than a historical timeline, the museum assembled a panel of community leaders -- Cal Williams, Celeste Hodge Growden, Jovell Rennie and Natasha Webster -- to serve as advisers for its development. Other academics and individuals involved in shaping the exhibition include Ian Hartman, associate professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and author of “Black History in the Last Frontier,” and local community leaders Ed Wesley, Eleanor Andrews and Jasmin Smith. The museum also established a partnership with The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest collection of Black American video and oral histories, to add 18 Alaska HistoryMakers to the Anchorage Museum archives.

“We had a lot of help putting this exhibition together,” Anchorage Museum Chief Curator Francesca Du Brock said.

Many of the photos and artifacts on display were sourced through community connections, not all of them still in the state. Varee’s brother-in-law, for example, happened to make a friend in Atlanta whose father, Samuel Fleming, had a treasure trove of photos to share from his time living in Fairbanks and Anchorage in the 1950s and ’60s.

In working with community advisers, Du Brock and Varee said, it was important that they do so respectfully.

“We set our sights on relationships with community members and organizations as transformational rather than transactional,” Varee said.

That distinction might seem obvious, but they are particularly important as museums work to decolonize their collections, perspectives and practices.

“We’re still in a place where we’re actively trying to address legacies of colonialism,” Du Brock said, speaking about museums in general. “It is imperative that we work in collaboration -- and meaningful collaboration -- with communities.”

Bringing in outside voices to help guide the process yielded benefits from design insights to new historical perspectives.

“There were creative contributions and ideas that came out of working with (the community advisory) group that were so exciting and transformational for the exhibition,” Du Brock said.

Justice, Journey and Joy

“Black Lives in Alaska” explores the Black experience in Alaska through three lenses: how Black people came to the state and made lives for themselves here (Journey); the ongoing fight for equality (Justice); and, critically, the beauty and happiness of lives that are not defined solely by struggle (Joy).

“This exhibit is exciting and, I would say, a little unique in terms of what we’ve done lately, because it is telling the story of Black lives in Alaska primarily through archival photos and personal collections,” Du Brock said. “It’s a really rich, really visual exhibition.”

“Black joy” is a concept that is increasingly prevalent both in popular culture and in the racial justice movement, and it is vital to the story of the Black experience in Alaska, Du Brock said.

“The Joy theme is really about sharing the resilience and beauty of Black life -- love, pleasure leisure -- and not just focusing on what is often, typically, the main focus, which tends to be narratives rooted in struggle and the fight for justice,” she said.

Visitors will hear music by local artists who have made an impact on Alaska’s cultural scene as they view photos, documents, publications and interviews chronicling Alaska’s unique Black history. Large-scale photos, listening stations, and an interactive element will invite visitors to experience the content in multiple ways.

“It’s a historical exhibition, but to me it feels more alive, because it’s connecting with the ‘now,’” Du Brock said. “It’s very open and fluid. There’s not one way to read the exhibition; you can enter at any point.”

Visitors who choose to start with the historical Journey theme might be surprised to see when it begins.

“A lot of people will be shocked at how early Black history was alive and well in Alaska,” Du Brock said. “There were some really amazing trailblazing women whose stories are just jaw-dropping. But these figures in history aren’t widely known, and they were truly just remarkable people.”

With any exhibition, Du Brock said, it’s “painful” to edit down what can physically be on display, and that was particularly challenging for “Black Lives in Alaska.” Programming -- such as oral history bike tours that are planned for this summer -- will help augment themes and ideas that couldn’t be included in the exhibition itself. Social media will also be an important component, especially since it provides opportunities to connect with people across Alaska and beyond who might not be able see the exhibition in person.

“Sometimes an Instagram post might resonate more powerfully than a visit to the exhibition itself,” Du Brock said. “We live in a world today where people are consuming information in really different ways and interacting with ideas in really different ways.”

‘One first step’

Black history in Alaska, like much of modern Alaska history, is deeply intertwined with colonialism and its effects on Alaska Native peoples, something Du Brock said was important to remember as the “Journey” theme was curated. Black whalers were among the first non-Russian settlers in the state; they were followed in the gold rush era by “buffalo soldiers” who participated in the forced removal of Native Americans in the Great Plains.

“American history is really complicated and fraught and is often the story of violent oppression of all kinds of people who are not white,” Du Brock said. “As Black people gained inroads in military infrastructure and in certain industries, they were involved in some parts of history in Alaska that are not uniformly positive stories.”

But, she added, there are many stories of unity and confluence between Black and Alaska Native peoples.

“Alaska Native civil rights work was being done very early, when we were still a territory and not a state,” Du Brock said. “In comparison with the rest of the country, there was a lot of consciousness raising being done by Alaska Native peoples. That activism laid the groundwork for broader civil rights in Alaska.”

Du Brock and Varee both said they are eager to see how it can contribute to the larger conversation about (and understanding of) race and justice in Alaska.

“We see this exhibition as a first step,” Du Brock said.

Because of the subject matter, she added, it felt important for the exhibition to feel like the beginning of a conversation and an invitation to connect with Black history in Alaska in a way that is as multidimensional as the history itself.

“It’s accessible and fun, and it will be appropriate for all ages,” Du Brock said. “I know a lot of the themes we’re talking about right now are serious, and we’re talking about them in a serious way, but I also hope that it will be a welcoming, educational, joyful and accessible experience for all people.”

Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy runs from April 30 to Nov. 30 at the Anchorage Museum. Learn more at

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.