ANCHORAGE — The Juneteenth Alaska Alcan Highway Celebration takes place this week under the auspices of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
The October celebration is appropriate, said Dr. Ronald Myers, one of the organizers and the head of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign.
The contributions of African-American soldiers building the Alaska Highway was “the first step in the breakdown of segregation in the military,” said Myers. Oct. 28, 1942, is the date when crews completed the road that connects Alaska to the rest of North America.
Myers is a physician serving poor populations in Mississippi. He’s also a noted jazz pianist and trumpet player. He’s performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and is the artistic director of the Mississippi Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In 1994 he helped start the “Modern Juneteenth Movement” to raise national recognition of Juneteenth. The day commemorates when slaves in Texas received word of the Emancipation Proclamation, June 19, 1865.
In 2001, Alaska became the seventh state to have an official Juneteenth day (Alaska Statute 44.12.090). The law doesn’t give anyone the day off with pay, but directs the governor to issue a proclamation. That led to a legal flap when then-Gov. Sarah Palin neglected to do so.
Palin, however, had a hand in the celebrations that will happen in Alaska this week.
“I didn’t know anything about (the Alcan) until I did a conference in Anchorage,” said Myers. “Sarah Palin came by with the ‘First Dude’ (Todd Palin).” The governor told him how African-American engineers played a critical role in constructing the Alcan Highway, with details about their sacrifice, heroism and triumphs.
“I was amazed,” said Myers. “I’d never heard it before.”
The story that astonished Myers involves the construction of the Sikanni Chief Bridge, 162 miles out of Dawson Creek. Black troops in segregated units worked on the road with minimal supplies in miserable conditions. They faced a fast-moving river 300 feet wide, but their heavy equipment had been sent to white divisions. The officers said there was no way the men could build a bridge across it on schedule.
The men thought otherwise. They bet their paychecks that they could finish the bridge in less than three days. With hand tools, saws and axes, they prepared the lumber from nearby trees. Tied to the shore with ropes, they plunged chest-deep into the rapid, freezing water and set the trestles. They sang work chants and chain-gang songs. They used the headlights of trucks to keep working in the dark.
They finished the bridge ahead of schedule.
Winning the bet was sweet, but what happened next is remarkable, said Myers. When the commander in charge, Col. Heath Twichell saw what they’d done, he ordered his white officers to eat with the black enlisted men.
“It was the first time in the history of the Army that anything like that had happened,” said Myers.
There was a commemoration at the bridge last Memorial Day at which Myer’s son, U.S. Army Capt. Ronald Myers Jr. delivered one of the speeches. Capt. Myers had just returned from his third tour of duty in Iraq. “These soldiers paved the way for me and other African Americans to serve openly as United States commissioned Army officers,” he said.
“Alaska has a tremendous African-American legacy,” said Myers. “People just don’t know about it. But I tell people making speeches about Juneteenth, ‘When you mention the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers, make sure you mention the African-American Army Engineers and the Alcan Highway.”
Myers will speak at UAA Wednesday before going on to Fairbanks and Delta Junction. His trip will wind up back in Anchorage on Sunday with a free jazz concert featuring several of Alaska’s best jazz musicians.