Celebrating SE civil rights leader

Sunday luncheon marks Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in capital city

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2003

In 1942, when Connie Paddock came to Juneau as a young woman, she remembers only one restaurant that accepted Native customers.

"It was a good thing I didn't have much money to spend," she now says.

When an anti-discrimination bill came under fire in the Alaska Territorial Legislature on Feb. 8, 1945, a 34-year-old woman in the public gallery stood up and asked to be heard. It was a time when Alaska Natives were fighting in World War II but weren't welcome in some shops, and their children went to segregated schools.

Elizabeth Peratrovich's short speech to the Senate shamed a majority into passing the bill banning discrimination in public accommodations. The bill had failed in a previous Legislature.

"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights," she told the senators.

Today the state celebrates Feb. 16, the day Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening signed the anti-discrimination bill, as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

"When she spoke, the place was full," said Harriet Roberts, who knew the Peratrovich family, and heard an account of the Senate speech from Elizabeth. "The hallways were full. She said when she got through, she just walked away so gracefully and sat down. The whole place started applauding."

That night Elizabeth and her husband, Roy, danced the night away at the newly integrated Bubble Room at the Baranof Hotel. They were the presidents of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camps, respectively.

"What's so significant about Elizabeth and the events that took place is she spoke out at a critical moment and it changed things," said Diane Benson of Chugiak, who wrote and performs a one-woman play about Peratrovich.

The Peratroviches moved from Klawock to Juneau in 1941.

Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

When: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Tlingit and Haida Community Council building at 3235 Hospital Drive.

Speakers: Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council; Selina Everson, past Grand Camp president of ANS; Brad Fluetsch, Grand Camp treasurer of ANB; and Leonard John, a member of the Tlingit and Haida Community Council.

"When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could happily play with our neighbors' children, we found such a house and arranged to lease it," she told the senators. "When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said 'No.' Would we be compelled to live in the slums?"

It wasn't Peratrovich's first attempt to influence public policy. In late 1941, the Peratroviches wrote a letter to Gruening, asking him to use his influence to end discrimination as evidenced by a sign reading "No Natives Allowed" at the Douglas Inn.

"We were shocked when the Jews were discriminated against in Germany. Stories were told of public places having signs, 'No Jews Allowed.' " they wrote. "All freedom loving people in our country were horrified at these reports yet it is being practiced in our own country."

Benson said of Elizabeth Peratrovich, "For a person who had so much style, to be treated as something dirty was mortifying."

Paddock remembers Peratrovich as an attractive, well-dressed woman who encouraged her to be successful and make a good appearance, "and to be always on guard against the discrimination we had seen in Juneau."

Dorothy V. Webster, who as president of the Douglas ANS camp pushed for a day to honor Elizabeth Peratrovich, said she was spurred by hearing her late grandfather, Cyrus Peck Sr., talk about the movement for equal rights.

"There's not a lot of written history about the Alaska Native movement in the history books," Webster said. "Because of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day this event and other events are taught in the schools. What we've seen is it's instilled a sense of pride in the Alaska Native children."

Roy Peratrovich "thought it was good that her efforts were being recognized," Webster said.

"But he thought it was important to note that ANB and ANS really pulled together to make (equal rights) happen."

Elizabeth Peratrovich Day also is a time to reflect on the persistence of racism, observers said.

"You folks don't realize the hatred they had for our people," Roy Peratrovich told the ANB and ANS Grand Camp convention in 1987.

Benson, who performs her play in schools, said, "Most every school I've been in, the children agree, in some schools emphatically, that racism is very much a part of our lives."

Elizabeth Peratrovich was the subject of Wednesday's Native Issues Forum at the ANB Hall. Doloresa Cadiente, ANS Grand Camp president, reminded the audience that a majority of state lawmakers wouldn't support a resolution in 2001 condemning hate crimes such as a racially motivated paint ball attack in Anchorage.

"Racism will not go away unless we all stand up to it," Cadiente said. "We owe it to our children to disarm ourselves of racist thoughts, words and deeds."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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