Thank You, Elizabeth
The last page of the book that last year's first graders wrote on the life of civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich says, "Thank you Elizabeth!"
The children wrote the book after a trip to the library to learn about the namesake for the Feb. 16 Elizabeth Peratrovich Day Alaska holiday, when they discovered there weren't any with pictures, or that they could read. Their teacher, Ms. Armstrong, read their book (now a copy of it is in the library) at the school assembly. The primary school students also sang a rap to Peratrovich's life story, and the high school drama students performed a readers theater of the dramatic testimony in the capital that preceded the passage of the anti-discrimination act in 1945. It was shocking to hear the words of territorial legislators defending discrimination against Natives saying that they smelled bad and were savages, and didn't have the intelligence or ability of whites and should be kept at a distance-- hard words of hate and prejudice that I didn't want my grandchildren-- some of whom are Native-- to hear. But later, I thought, we have to remember or else we may forget what injustices our leaders-- and our laws-- are capable of.
At the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall potluck that night, the choir- including our mayor, a Native woman-- sang, "Down to the River to Pray," and the local children's book was read again by a little girl and a teacher.
We were also reminded of Elizabeth's contributions to the Alaska Native Sisterhood, who hosted the event, and of her intelligence, education, and poise. When asked by a legislator if she actually believed that laws against racism would make it go away, Elizabeth replied that we have laws against murder and larceny and people still kill and steal, but as a society, we know it is wrong, and don't allow it. She turned their own words against them when she wondered out loud how someone such as herself so recently out of "savagery", would have to remind learned leaders of the territory of their own country's laws, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and asked them to obey them.
Elizabeth Wanamaker was born in Petersburg, AK on the 4th of July 1911 (don't you love that!), and after her parents died she was adopted by missionaries, educated at Sheldon Jackson boarding school in Sitka, and went to college in Washington. She married Roy Peratrovich, also a Tlingit, and an attorney, they moved with their family to Juneau in 1940 and were not allowed to live in a nice neighborhood, eat in cafes, sit where they wanted in the movie theater-- and Elizabeth decided to do something about that, and did. Five years later, Alaska passed the anti-discrimination act, about 20 years before the rest of the country did. Which is cold comfort to the victims, and while the law of the land changed, the culture of racism continued. (Read Ernestine Hayes' Tao of Raven for a personal account). It's on-going, this march toward equality and fairness and justice for all. (It's frightening what our nation's leader has said about Muslim Americans, immigrants, refugees.)
Which is why the final speech at the potluck has stuck with this grandmother.
Mike Denker, who is the chairman of the Borough Code Review Committee, and who attends assembly meetings to make sure we stay on track with all the laws of the land from the Constitution to the local charter, said we must never forget that laws are made by the ruling class, mostly educated, mostly comfortable, and certainly powerful, but not always right. He said Elizabeth's story illustrates that change requires awareness, and even when "No Natives or Dogs" signs were normal and the law of the land separated Native students from white students in public schools, she knew it was wrong because her heart and her Christian faith told her so, and she had studied American history and civics. Secondly, she had the courage to fight it, which by all accounts she did with grace and thoughtful arguments, and finally, Mike said, she had the determination to see it through. Her legacy he said, is to be aware, have courage, and never give up.
Thank you, Elizabeth. (And thanks to Mike, too.)