Harborview Elementary School students filed into their gymnasium Thursday morning adorned in hand-crafted sashes with phrases that represented Elizabeth Peratrovich’s battle for civil rights.
The felt sashes — in shades of blue, brown and white — were bedecked with paint, marker or iridescent buttons with words in English and Tlingit saying: “Freedom,” “leadership,” “respect,” “humor,” “kind,” “loyal,” “brave,” “intelligence,” “friendly” and others.
“We are all here for a very special celebration of our civil rights,” said Harborview principal Dave Stoltenburg.
They sat on the gym floor as elder “Grandma” Selena Everson spoke of the day recognizing civil rights in Alaska.
Everson told the story of Alberta Schenck, an Alaska Native girl who went to the Dream Theater in Nome and was arrested for refusing to move out of the “whites only” section. Schenck had worked for the theater and was outspoken against the discrimination going on.
“Wouldn’t that hurt your feelings if you were treated like that today?” Everson asked the students.
Everson said territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening encouraged the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood to try and help fix the wrongs.
“He said this isn’t right, this has to be corrected,” she explained.
Everson said the words Peratrovich spoke before the Legislature touched the “heart and soul” of the legislators and the people involved in the movement.
Everson also told the story of how Peratrovich and her husband Roy had secured a home in Juneau to live with their three children. However, when they arrived in Juneau, Everson said, the landlord told the couple he would not rent to Alaska Natives.
She said back then, there were white schools and Native schools and separate churches.
“Today our children can go to any school they want,” Everson said. “I want the children to know a little of their history. A little more of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood. As our elders taught me, always encourage them to stay in school, to fight for their people, to fight for their rights because they always continue. We were taught to listen from early age. How are you going to learn how to behave and how to respect your elders and every other people?”
Edward Hotch, an Alaska Native leader, also spoke to the children about the day, infusing a message about the importance of education.
“She (Peratrovich) was smart because she persisted in learning,” Hotch said. “She studied hard to get a decent education. Just like you, who will be our future leaders.”
He spoke of anti-discrimination legislation that was introduced in 1943. The bill did not pass that session, however it was passed in 1945 with the help of Peratrovich’s pivotal testimony.
Hotch said the key message that turned the minds of some legislators was when she was asked if creating a law against discrimination would stop it. Peratrovich said there are laws against larceny and murder, however those laws don’t prevent those crimes from occurring, but at least in passing the law against discrimination the legislators would be asserting to the world the evil of the acts and help overcome discrimination.
Hotch said that Peratrovich is buried in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery, “keeping a watch over us to make sure we’re doing what’s right.”
In 1988, the Alaska legislature declared Feb. 16 Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
“Today there is still a fight against discrimination, but we have Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, which Elizabeth was part of,” Hotch said. “It is the 100th year of ANB. It is the oldest Native organization that has been fighting for our rights for 100 years.”
Hotch listed several other Alaska Native organizations that assist in the fight to make it so each person is equal to everyone around them.
“We are getting closer to that goal by being able to come in and teach the culture,” he said. “We are meeting some of the goals we are striving to. We are getting closer to enjoying the full meaning of the equal rights bill.”
Jessica Chester, a Goldbelt Tlingit culture language teacher who works with a program at Harborview, explained the sashes are a symbol of membership for an organization, but at Harborview they are a symbol of education.
The materials for the sashes were paid for by a grant from Goldbelt.
The students also got another special treat for the celebration on Thursday — a medley of songs performed by African Americans Bobby Lewis and Eustace Johnson, who will be performing at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center on Sunday (at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.).
Lewis told the students of early African American music when their race was brought over as slaves. He performed a song after tapping a drum beat onto the side of the piano, which Johnson mimicked in the notes. The song was spiritual — “Steal Away to Jesus.” Lewis said that same beat is found in music from many years later — called Motown — as he sang part of “My Girl.”
“That same beat is heard today in some of the common music we hear every day,” Lewis said. “Even pop music. This is one of the songs I hear today that I love.”
Lewis began to sing “Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars — a song that was very familiar to the students as the children raised up their own voices to sing word-for-word with Lewis.
“Elizabeth is in all of us,” he said. “You have to believe you are perfect just the way you are. No one should have to change you just to make you beautiful.”
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.