Selkregg Award: spotlighting Anchorage’s African American history

May 11, 2016
Dr. Ian Hartman, a UAA assistant professor of history, recently won the 2016 Selkregg Award, which he plans to use to support research into the history of African Americans in South-central Alaska. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Dr. Ian Hartman, a UAA assistant professor of history, recently won the 2016 Selkregg Award, which he plans to use to support research into the history of African Americans in Southcentral Alaska. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA history professor Ian Hartman has long been fascinated with questions of race, public policy and popular culture—so engrossed that he focused on those topics in his dissertation and first book.

Last summer, Hartman agreed to work on an edited volume about the history of Anchorage, scheduled for publication later this year.

“We were talking about how there really isn’t any comprehensive or current treatment of African American history in Anchorage,” said Hartman, a Cook Inlet Historical Society board member. “And it’s a pretty interesting history—this is Fairview and Mountain View and redlining and urban renewal and civil rights activism and the military’s involved, all kinds of things. I volunteered to write that chapter.”

A student who helped Hartman with the Anchorage book project found much more information than could be shoehorned into a single chapter, so Hartman applied for—and won—the 2016 Selkregg Community Engagement & Service Learning Award.

Hartman hopes to use the $5,000 award to continue his research into the history of African Americans in Southcentral Alaska, with plans to preserve oral histories from African Americans who migrated to Alaska years ago and use archived accounts to better understand what life here was like for African Americans who faced obstacles like housing and employment discrimination.

“What was supposed to be this one-off chapter in this broader volume is now at this point a much bigger project,” Hartman said, explaining that he hopes to work with that student assistant, David Reamer, along with a team of undergraduate and graduate scholars. “We’re going to try to put together a longer scholarly book I’m hoping will serve as the definitive history of African Americans in Southcentral Alaska.”

 

Growing a dynamic community

When did African Americans first migrate to Alaska, and why? What happened after they arrived, and how did the African American community evolve?

“It’s very much so a Northern story,” Hartman said. “It’s not the Jim Crow South. You have thousands of African American men and women who come up here looking for opportunity. They even find opportunity. There’s some wonderful stories: Mahala Ashley Dickerson was one of the first attorneys, an African American woman. Blanche McSmith was in the legislature, she was a black woman. Lula Swanson, a famous madam, among other things, was one of the largest property owners, an African American woman.”

Everett Louis Overstreet wrote a 1988 book that chronicled how and why African Americans arrived and stayed here: Black on a Background of White: A Chronicle of Afro-Americans’ Involvement in America’s Last Frontier, Alaska.

The first time African Americans were recorded as living in Alaska, Overstreet said, was in a civilian population count of Sitka recorded by the U.S. Army three years after the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.

“Six blacks were recorded in the count of 391 people,” he wrote. “Three of the six were from the Caribbean Islands…two were a married couple who worked on the Navy ship Cyane and the other was a servant named Mary who came to Alaska with an Army doctor and his family.”

Capt. Michael Healy, the acclaimed and highly skilled commander of U.S. Revenue Marine Division cutters in the late 1800s-early 1900s, was the son of a slave and a plantation owner.

African Americans also served on whaling vessels, were among the hordes of people who descended on the Klondike gold fields in 1896, and served among the soldiers sent to maintain order during the gold rush.

The 1940 census recorded 141 African American people living in Alaska, but that number grew with the expansion of civilian construction work opportunities and year-round military projects like construction of the Alcan Highway.

Racism festered in the upper reaches of the military in the midst of efforts to integrate the institution. Overstreet’s book included a comment from Zelmer Lawrence, an African American civilian who had worked on Elmendorf and Fort Richardson, about the early 1940s U.S. Army Commander in Alaska, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner: “a cocky pomp and ceremony officer who did not care for blacks.”

The first black soldier stationed at Elmendorf, Lawrence told Overstreet, was assigned to an isolated section of base housing in which he was the lone occupant.

Over the following decades, African Americans moved to Anchorage to pursue opportunities of all kinds, establishing a variety of businesses and settling in Fairview, Mountain View and an area then known as Eastchester Flats because until the 1968 Fair Housing Act, banks and real estate agencies had segregated housing by refusing to sell mortgages and homes to African Americans and other minorities in most of the city’s other neighborhoods.

People like McSmith, Willard Bowman and Dr. Joshua Wright eventually served in the Alaska Legislature, while the Rev. Alonzo Patterson grew Anchorage’s Shiloh Baptist Church into a formidable community engaged in community service and civic activism, Overstreet said.

In more recent years, refugees have traveled to Anchorage to escape persecution in their home countries, and many of these people hail from African nations like Togo. Others who migrated here but aren’t refugees have left places like Senegal and Kenya to pursue an education and other opportunities.

 

Understanding people’s experiences

In addition to creating a definitive history, Hartman has a second goal: networking with the Anchorage School District to create a smaller book about African American contributions to Anchorage.

“Of which there have been many,” he said. “I think we can do that this academic year, which the Selkregg funding will help with. Then longer term, it would be interesting to put a class on the books at the university, a broader race-immigration history of the Pacific Northwest.”

A history like the one Hartman envisions is more relevant now than ever because some of Anchorage’s neighborhoods are among the most diverse in the country, with close to 100 languages spoken in the Anchorage School District.

“Anchorage is really a cosmopolitan city that punches far above its weight,” Hartman said. “It’s a town of 300,000 people, but if you look at the levels of immigration here over the past generation, it’s going to rival that of any major American city. It’s time our history catches up to that and we start to understand those trends, understand people’s experiences who’ve arrived here and why they arrived here, the movements they forged and challenges they faced.”

 

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

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