“No Natives Allowed” read the notice on a hotel door in Douglas, Alaska.
Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband, Roy, Tlingit natives, had seen such signs before, growing up as they had in a segregated Alaska, with separate schools, hospitals, theaters, restaurants and cemeteries for whites and for natives. But this time something stirred within them, and so they wrote to territorial governor Ernest Gruening, and began their campaign to fight discrimination in Alaska. It would be a long, hard fight. An article in the Nov-Dec, 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine tells Elizabeth’s story.
Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911-1958) was born in Petersburg, District of Alaska, a member of the Lukaax̱.ádi clan, in the Raven moiety of the Tlingit nation. In 1931, at the age of 20, she married Roy Peratrovich, (1908–1989), also a Tlingit, of mixed native and Serbian descent who worked in a cannery. They lived in Klawock, where Roy was elected to four terms as mayor, and they had three children. Looking for greater opportunities, they moved their family to Juneau, the capital of what was by then the Alaska Territory.
In Juneau, the Peratroviches found extensive social and racial discrimination against Alaska Natives, and signs banning Native entry to public facilities. The Peratroviches were active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and its counterpart, the Sisterhood. By 1944, Roy and Elizabeth were leading their respective sides of the organization.
They petitioned the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, to ban the “No Natives Allowed” signs then common in that city and elsewhere. Gruening agreed with the Peratroviches, and they joined forces. In 1943, they attempted to usher an antidiscrimination bill through Alaska’s Territorial Legislature. It failed, with a tie vote of 8-8 in the House. Undaunted, the Peratroviches traveled across the territory urging Natives to get involved, to run for political seats, to challenge the status quo and work toward change.
As leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Peratroviches redoubled their efforts, and a new antidiscrimination bill reached the Senate floor on February 5, 1945. By then two Natives had been elected to the territory’s legislature, including Roy’s brother Frank, and Alaska’s House had already approved the bill. There were so many onlookers that the crowd spilled out of the gallery doors and into the hall.
An article in the March 20, 2019 New York Times explained what happened next: “Senator Allen Shattuck argued that the measure would ‘aggravate rather than allay’ racial tensions. “‘Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?’ he was quoted as saying in Gruening’s 1973 autobiography, Many Battles.
“When the floor was opened to public comments, Peratrovich set down her knitting needles and rose from her seat in the back. Taking the podium, she said: ‘I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.’
“She gave examples of the injustices that she and her family had faced because of their background and called on the lawmakers to act. ‘You as legislators,’ she said, ‘can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.’
“Elizabeth’s calm, measured, and eloquent testimony shamed the opposition into what The Daily Alaska Empire termed a ‘defensive whisper.’ The gallery broke out in ‘a wild burst of applause,’ and the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act was passed by a vote of 11 to 5. Governor Gruening signed the bill into law on Feb. 16, a date now honored by the state each year. The new legislation entitled all Alaskans to “full and equal enjoyment” of public establishments, set a misdemeanor penalty for violators of the law, and banned posting of discriminatory signs based on race.
In 1954, Roy Peratrovich accepted a position with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the family moved to Oklahoma. Two years later Elizabeth learned that she had breast cancer, and they returned to Juneau. When her illness worsened, she was admitted to a Christian Science care center in Seattle, where her son, Roy Jr., was attending college. She died on Dec. 1, 1958, at the age of only 47, and was buried in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Fighter in Velvet Gloves is the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich, by Annie Boochever and Roy Peratrovich, Jr., published in February, 2019 by the University of Alaska Press. Annie writes on her website, “As a former librarian and teacher in Juneau, I had long wished for a book about Elizabeth Peratrovich that was accessible to younger readers. When Roy said he would help me document his mother’s legacy, I was thrilled.”
Elizabeth’s son, Roy Jr., would become the first Alaska Native to be registered as a professional civil engineer, designing the original Brotherhood Bridge over the Mendenhall River near Juneau. The Brotherhood Bridge symbolized the bridging of the gap between Native and non-Native Alaskans, and among those attending the dedication of the original Brotherhood Bridge were his father, Roy Sr. who represented the Alaska office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his uncle, Frank Peratrovich, a state senator from Klawock.
A gallery of the Alaska House of Representatives has been named in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich, the only one named for someone other than a former legislator, and a bronze bust sculpted by her son Roy Jr. is on permanent display in the lobby of the State Capitol. Roy writes on his website, “I have shown my mother in an evening wrap, as she looked the night she and Dad celebrated the passage of Alaska’s first Anti-Discrimination Bill. They danced all night at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau, February 16, 1945.”
In 2018, Elizabeth Peratrovich was chosen by the National Women’s History Project as one of its honorees, and in 2020 the United States Mint will commemorate her legacy on a one dollar coin. From the U.S. Mint website: “The obverse (heads) design retains the central figure of the “Sacagawea” design first produced in 2000.
“The reverse (tails) design features a portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose advocacy was considered a deciding factor in the passage of the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Law in the Alaskan Territorial Government. The foreground features a symbol of the Tlingit Raven moiety, of which she was a member.”