Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest maps the trials and challenges African Americans have encountered in the forty-ninth state. The earliest arrivals, many of whom worked as whalers, prospectors, and service members, did not always stay long. Others put down roots and lived full lives in Alaska. These Black individuals fought for greater inclusion and helped establish Alaska’s modern civic institutions, contributing to the political and social life of the state even as they endured racism and fought injustice.
The excerpt below touches on Alaska’s history of race relations and civil rights. This history reminds the reader that the currents of discrimination and its responses—self-activity, activism, and perseverance—are American stories that might be explored in the unlikeliest of places. Even as it reveals the specific context of the state’s complex history, Alaska’s Black history encompasses the themes of the larger nationwide freedom struggle and enriches the history of people of African descent in North America. —Ian C. Hartman
In the summer of 1962, African Americans and other area activists joined together to picket Carrs, Alaska’s largest grocery store chain. Clarence Coleman, branch president of the Anchorage NAACP, wrote to Roy Wilkins at the national office in New York City: “The first picket line in the history of the Anchorage NAACP began its task of protesting the hiring policies of Carrs Food Center here in Anchorage today 31 July 10 am Alaska Standard Time.”1 Coleman’s statement was not quite true. Five years earlier, Joseph M. Jackson and James E. Owens organized area workers and set up a picket outside of the Local 341 Laborers and Hod Carrier Union Hall. They and others sought an inclusive union for African American and Alaska Native workers and called for greater transparency in promotion guidelines. Owens stated that direct action “was the only way we’re going to get equality.”2
The picket of Carrs in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood was a watershed moment in the history of civil rights in Alaska. Many in the Black community took issue with the grocery store’s apparent refusal to hire African Americans to work in any capacity beyond sanitation and other so-called menial, low-level jobs. In one correspondence Bernard J. Carr Sr., an owner of the grocery store chain, conceded he had “two Negro employees,” a garbage collector and a janitor. But he continued, “The time is not right to hire a Negro checker.” Activist Pat Berkley recollected, “They [Carrs] didn’t want to hire any Blacks. And of course, Pop Carr…wasn’t to hire any Blacks because he had hired one [who] became very friendly with a white girl that worked there, so that was the end of that.”3 Still, the NAACP suggested the grocer benefited from a base of African American patrons and, as such, should hire and promote a few as employees. At its Fairview store, over 30 percent of the clientele was Black, yet not a single African American worked in management or any position that interfaced with the public.4
In response, men and women took to the picket line outside of Carrs to raise awareness. Though she was seven months pregnant, Anchorage resident and activist Pat Berkley helped organize the picket and led the women to march on the line during the day; the men walked in the evening. Cars and pedestrians “booed and laughed at [us],” Berkley remembered.5 Despite some negative reaction, the picket seemingly worked; owners agreed to hire a more diverse workforce. Organizer Joseph Kline summarized the terms of the agreement: Carrs grocery would “hire one person immediately. The second within thirty days and the third sixty days after the first.” These positions were supposed to include a clerk, cashier, or grocery checkers, all of which afforded a greater possibility for advancement than the menial positions that the picketers accused Carrs of reserving for Black workers.6
Unfortunately, Carrs failed to hire three African Americans within the agreed-upon sixty days, but the NAACP kept up its pressure, and the grocery store eventually complied. Richard Watts was the first man Carrs hired as a result of the picket. He became the first African American bagger at the store and stayed with the grocer for over forty-five years. In accordance with what the activists envisioned, Watts did not remain a bagger for long. He ascended the chain of management; by the end of a long and distinguished career, Watts had become a district manager and participated in the local business community as a member of the board of directors for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.7
The Carrs boycott anticipated more extensive changes in Fairview that had come about by the middle of the 1960s. During this decade the neighborhood emerged as a center of activism and civic engagement in Anchorage. Its reputation as one of Anchorage’s most diverse communities only grew, as did the fear that city leadership might continue to neglect the needs of its residents. After the redevelopment and so-called urban renewal of Eastchester Flats, roughly the southern tier of Fairview, men and women on the community council grew more determined to ensure the existing neighborhood would not be left out as Anchorage leadership plotted new recreational outlets for residents. Olivia Holland, Ben Humphries, and John Parks, all active on the neighborhood council, led an effort to set aside land for a park and later spearheaded an effort to deliver public transportation throughout Anchorage. These efforts took considerable effort but would yield tangible results for the residents of Fairview in the decades to follow.8
Beyond the Carrs boycott in Fairview, activists protested and organized against mistreatment and discrimination elsewhere during the early and mid-1960s. In Anchorage and Fairbanks, residents established employment workshops to organize letter writing campaigns and rallies and to reach out to area businesses to connect minority job candidates with desirable employment. The workshops in Anchorage organized pickets at Caribou-Wards and Woolworths; one woman in Anchorage, Lillian Morris, took a lead role in the Woolworths pickets and led the area employment workshop. Fairbanks activists also organized a picket of Woolworths in their hometown. The efforts paid off, at least to some extent. Sears, Roebuck and Company agreed to interview and hire qualified African American, Native, Filipinx, and Mexican applicants. The Spenard Caribou-Wards hired two Black salesclerks and agreed to file and retain applications for a longer period, a concession to the employment workshop. The Anchorage Woolworths hired a Black employee for the first time. These efforts did not approach the level of equity that the Employment Workshop ultimately desired, but they represented a small measure of progress.9
Ian C. Hartman is associate professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
David Reamer is a public historian and journalist who writes for the Anchorage Daily News.
1 Clarence V. Coleman to Roy Wilkins via Western Union Telegram, August 1, 1962, Papers of the NAACP, Part 27: Selected Branch Files, 1956–1965, Series D: The West, ed. John H. Bracey Jr., Sharon Harley, and August Meier. Available on microfilm at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
2 For reference to the picket on the Local 341 Laborers and Hod Carrier Union, see Papers of the NAACP, Supplement to Part 13, the NAACP and Labor, 1956–1965, edited by John H. Bracey Jr. and August Meier (folder 14), available on microfilm at the University of Alaska Anchorage. For additional reference, see Meier Randall Keenan, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Vintage, 2000), 284.
3 Charlie Mae “Pat” Berkley, interview by Bruce Melzer, c. 1982–1983, Bruce Melzer oral history interviews, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
4 NAACP News Letter, Papers of the NAACP, Part 27: Selected Branch Files, 1956–1965, Series D: The West, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
5 Charlie Mae “Pat” Berkley, interview by Bruce Melzer, c. 1982–1983.
6 Joseph H. Kline Jr. to Roy Wilkins, March 3, 1963. Papers of the NAACP, Part 27: Selected Branch Files, available on microfilm at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
7 For a brief report on Richard Watts’s career at Carrs, see Christine Kim, “Carrs’ First Black Worker Recalls His Rise through the Ranks,” February 19, 2010 on KTUU. For the announcement of Watts on the board of directors for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, see “Anchorage Chamber’s 2013–14 Board of Directors Announced,” Alaska Dispatch News, September 12, 2013.
8 “City officials tour Fairview neighborhood park,” Anchorage Times, August 2, 1967, 1.
9 Dianne Anderson, “Protest Group Gets Results, With and Without Picketing,” Anchorage Daily Times, August 13, 1968, 3.