June 4, 2021
Black Alaska and The HistoryMakers 
Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy
In April, the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, in partnership with The HistoryMakers opened the groundbreaking exhibit “Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy.”  For all involved, this was a momentous occasion in recognition of this little known, but extremely rich history.  
Mahala Ashley Dickerson, c. 1940s
Mahala Ashley Dickerson, c. 2000s
Our work in Alaska actually began at a 2017 reception in Dallas, hosted by former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.  In attendance was then American Airlines Federal Credit Union executive and former Alaska state representative Walter Furnace. We learned at that reception that traveling to Alaska – our longtime dream – might just become a reality.  We had wanted to travel there to do interviews for almost 18 years and we had lost the opportunity to record the story of Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the Alaska Territory’s first black lawyer and black homesteader, who had unfortunately passed away in 2007. 
Back Row, L to R: Cal Williams, Ed Wesley, Celeste Hodge Growden, Mayfield Evans, Walter Furnace
Front Row, L to R:First Lady Mara Kimmel, Julieanna Richardson, Eleanor Andrews, Rex Butler, Sylvester Joubert
Understanding the urgency, Walter Furnace recruited civil engineer and historian E. Louis Overstreet to assist our efforts and then by early 2018, Alaska Airlines’ Tim Thompson had stepped forward to fly us there and the committee grew to include community historian Cal Williams, municipal administrator Eleanor Andrews, and civic leaders Celeste Hodge Growden and Ed Wesley.  After months of planning, we held a standing room only reception on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 at the Captain Hook Hotel. There with photographs supplied by Cal Williams, we learned that the history of African Americans went as far back as the 1800s. We saw it amazingly in the photos. 
Dionti Davis, Julieanna Richardson,
and Courtney Shareef
Dionti Davis, Courtney Shareef, and Arlene Schmuland
During our time in Alaska, we were able to visit Alaska Public Media for an interview with Lori Townsend, and met with University of Alaska Anchorage Dean of Libraries Stephen Rollins, Professor Ian Hartman, and Archivist Arlene Schmuland. HistoryMaker Eleanor Andrews was instrumental in securing a meeting with the Rasmuson Foundation’s President and CEO Diane Kaplan and Vice President of Programs Alexander McKay.  We also had what is now known as a fateful tour of the Anchorage Museum thanks to the invitation of former Anchorage First Lady Mara Kimmel where we first met Anchorage Museum’s Julie Varee.  
The Anchorage Museum, 2020
For those who have never travelled to Anchorage, the Anchorage Museum is a world class museum, but one thing we noticed is that there was no representation anywhere in the museum of the African American experience and we made note of that. Using the Rasmuson funding, we made another trip there to do more interviews of African American Alaska HistoryMakers. Dean Rollins and Ed Wesley worked together to our joy and amazement to get funding so that the entire State of Alaska now has access to The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Plus, we started working closely with Ian Hartman, Cal Williams, Eleanor Andrews and Celeste about how we can work to preserve the personal collections of our Alaska HistoryMakers. 

This has been an increasingly important part of our work as much of the documentary evidence of the life and work of our HistoryMakers are contained in their personal collections housed in their attics, basements, storage lockers and garages. Furthermore, most of the nations’ libraries, museums and archives lack the presence of African American material. That is why we have been working to find repositories for our HistoryMakers. As we move forward, we are looking to start digitizing our HistoryMakers’ collections to make them part of our archival record. Our goal is now to be the digital repository for the black experience. 

This is why are OVERJOYED by the work of the Anchorage Museum and now only two and half years later, the Anchorage Museum has an exquisite and wonderfully curated 8,600 square foot exhibit that tells the magnificent story of the African American experience in Alaska. 
Cal Williams, Virtual Tour Opening Remarks, 2021
We, at The HistoryMakers are so very proud that what was an omission has now been rectified and made whole. Here is one thank you and appreciation to all who worked to make it happen. As Cal Williams said in his opening remarks to the virtual tour: “the Rasmuson Foundation, the [Anchorage] museum, The HistoryMakers, and the University of Alaska have all come together in collaboration and found value in stories that were being thrown in the dumpsters.”

Two whalers, Point Barrow, Alaska, c. 1890-1900.
The exhibit tells the story in three parts: Journey, Justice, and Joy. Whalers were among the earliest, working on multiracial ships in the northern Pacific Ocean hunting sperm whales beginning in the 1840s. Comprised of both freedman and those who had escaped enslavement, whaling in remote Alaska continued past the Civil War, reportedly due to opportunities of advancement harder to come by on the mainland. [1]
Captain William T. Shorey and his family, c. 1900s.
One man specifically highlighted in the exhibit is Captain William T. Shorey “born on a Barbados sugar plantation in the 1860s, life aboard a whaling ship was preferable to the racism he faced in the Caribbean. By 1886, Shorey had become first in command of the Emma F. Herriman and perhaps among the most effective whalers to ply his trade in the North Pacific.” [2] Hartman emphasized during the tour that Shorey had amassed such wealth that upon moving back to the mainland, he was among San Francisco’s elite families, later contributing to the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.  
Buffalo Soldiers prepare halibut for their unit,
Alaska, c. 1899-1900.            
Bessie Couture, c. 1900.
The Yukon Gold Rush of 1896-1900 brought in another wave of African Americans, as the 24th Infantry, popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers, were shipped north to keep the peace among those rushing to claim their fortunes, which could breed violence. This period also brought about the first Black-owned business in Alaska: “Bessie Couture… the owner and operator of two restaurants in Skagway, Alaska. The Kitchen was the name of her first restaurant, which she ran during the Klondike Gold Rush, between 1897 and 1900. Her second restaurant, co-owned with her husband, was the Broadway Restaurant and Bakery, which served customers in the 1920s." [3]
Soldiers Refines Sims Jr. (left) and Alfred Jalufkamet (right) meet in the middle on completion of the Alaska Highway, Contact Creek, 1942.
A soldier working on the Alaska Highway, 1942.
The next notable period was the building of the ALCAN (commonly known as the Alaska) Highway that began in 1942. Spanning 1,390 miles, the roadway was built 11,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one third of which were African Americans organized into three Negro Regiments: “In one case, the 95th Engineer Regiment… was left without bulldozers and other machinery. Although the 95th had more experience operating the equipment, the machinery was given to the all-white 35th Regiment. The African Americans were given hand tools to use." [4] 
Ed Wesley serving as military police during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, c. 1975-1977.
The construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from 1975 to 1977 also brought some African Americans to the far north. Some worked on the pipeline itself or, like HistoryMaker Ed Wesley who is featured in the exhibit, some were sent by the military to provide security. In his 2018 interview, Wesley recalled working as a military policeman: “It was a great opportunity for me… in ’75 [1975] I made $58,000 dollars that year… I worked a lot of hours… But, it was still a great opportunity and that’s when I purchased a house and 33 acres of land in Delta. At one time, I had about 14 employees under my supervision and here I was a young 24 year old with awesome responsibility on the pipeline.” [5]
Blanche McSmith 
Mahala Dickerson 
The Justice portion of the exhibition highlights Blanche McSmith, a founding member of the Anchorage NAACP in 1951 and the first African American to serve in the Alaska State Legislature. [6] The exhibit also highlights Mahala Dickerson, the first African American woman admitted to Alaska’s State Bar in 1958. [7] 
JoAnn Overstreet and Ruby Dee at an
Alaska Black Caucus event, 1981.
Alaska Black Caucus awards dinner, 1977.
JoAnn Gregory Overstreet is also featured as a women's golf pioneer who also helped establish the Alaska Black Caucus (ABC) in 1975. The ABC ran strong up until the 1990s, when growth began to slow and many members reached retirement age. However, the light re-ignited at the beginning of 2020, with HistoryMaker Celeste Hodge Growden at the helm.
Children in front of a sign for the NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and
Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) in Anchorage, 1981.
Also of note were African American publications, including The New HorizonThe Anchorage Gazette, and the North Star Reporter newspapers. There was also the African Americans in Alaska Resource Guide and the Business Network Directory, published by the African American Business Council of Alaska. Unfortunately, several of these are no longer in print.
Margaret Fleming dressed for church in front of the family car, Anchorage, 1962.
Harry Ross, Alaska Railroad's first African American conductor, where he worked for over fifty years, undated
The final section of the exhibit focuses on Joy: “For Black people, joy… doesn’t have to be these large, grand moments. Just existing outside of struggle is joyous, and so often we see Black trauma perpetrated in the media, whether that be film or music, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Black joy can be dressing up in your Sunday best and feeling really good about it… signing the papers for your first home… Black joy can be anything we want it to be, it doesn’t have to be struggle… These images, these depictions of Black joy make me feel happy… celebrated… carefree.”

Joy is what we at The HistoryMakers feel…thanks to all that made this work happen!!!

For more information on the exhibit, click here: www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits
[1] “Black History in the Last Frontier No. 1 of 7,” University of Alaska Anchorage & National Park Service, accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/articles/upload/Alaska-Black-History-1-of-7-Whalers-508.pdf
[2] Ibid.
[3] “BESSIE COUTURE: FIRST BLACK BUSINESS OWNER IN ALASKA,” Anchorage Museum, April 24, 2020, accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/extra-tough-women-of-the-north/women-of-the-north-profiles/bessie-couture-first-black-business-owner-in-alaska/
[4] “Men Who Built the Highway,” PBS American Experience, accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/alaska-men/
[5] Ed Wesley (The HistoryMakers A2018.096), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 19, 2018, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3. 
[6] “BLANCHE MCSMITH: FIRST BLACK PERSON TO SERVE IN THE ALASKA STATE LEGISLATURE,” Anchorage Museum, July 10, 2020, accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/extra-tough-women-of-the-north/women-of-the-north-profiles/blanche-mcsmith-first-black-person-to-serve-in-the-alaska-state-legislature/
[7] “MAHALA ASHLEY DICKERSON: CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, PROMINENT LAWYER,” Anchorage Museum, August 7, 2020, accessed May 17, 2021. https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/extra-tough-women-of-the-north/women-of-the-north-profiles/mahala-dickerson-first-black-woman-admitted-to-the-state-bar/