Black History is Alaska History

Two historians highlight Black lives in the state

Two white guys have written a book, "Black Lives in Alaska." We are glad they stepped up.

Ian Hartman, associate professor and department chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of History, and

David Reamer, well-known historian, especially to readers of his column the Anchorage Daily News column "Histories of Alaska," both say they published the stories because of "the absence of material on this subject."

"This book has its roots in the Anchorage centennial publication, 'Imagining Anchorage' (Univ. of Alaska Press, 2017)," said Hartman. "Jim Barnett and I edited that volume, but I also authored an included chapter on civil rights in Anchorage.

"David Reamer's research was instrumental to that chapter. In fact, we had so much material that we decided to keep going. I also published a book with the National Park Service on the topic a couple of years later, in 2019. The "Black Lives in Alaska" book represents a culmination of over seven years of research and expanding on a project that just seemed to grow and grow."

Small in numbers but great in impact

Asked if there was any one person who had the most impact on civil rights in Alaska, Reamer replied, "As in race relations? There hasn't been one individual I would singularly credit with improving race relations.

"It was, is, and almost certainly will always be an ongoing struggle. Rather than one person providing even something as relatively simple as a foundation, I see it more as the efforts building upon each other, each brave activist adding a brick to the structure of a more equal Alaska."

And Hartman agreed, "It's impossible to boil it down to a single person. The book has tried to highlight many people, a community in fact.

"While Alaska's Black community has never been a particularly high percentage of total Alaskans, they have exceeded beyond what their numbers might suggest. Black Alaskans have been leaders in state and local government, education, business, the military, law and much else."

Lives deserving of recognition

Is there one person that deserves a book of their own?

"There is one person from that book that I think deserves more, extended attention, it is journalist Herbert Frisby," said Reamer. "Based out of Baltimore, Frisby was simply enamored with Alaska and visited several times, beginning during World War II as an embedded journalist, including as perhaps the first civilian to travel the Alaska Highway. He wrote extensively and repeatedly about Alaska for the Baltimore Afro American, and he is the most important source on Black history in 1940s Alaska."

"There are several people who deserve their own biographies," said Hartman. "I'd single out Zula Swanson and M. Ashley Dickerson as two women who've had an extraordinary impact on Anchorage, albeit for different reasons. You'll need to read the book to learn more about these two amazing women, but suffice to say that there's much more to say about them than what is in the book."

Hartman has no plans to write more books about Black Alaskans.

"I've greatly enjoyed this project and have found it to be the most intellectually rewarding book that I've had the fortune to work on, but I'd love to see others pick up where this project has left off.

"As I often remind people, the subtitle of the book is 'A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest.'

The emphasis should be understood that this is "A" history – not "The" History of African Americans in the Far Northwest. I've always believed that there's so much left to say about the topic, and this is far from the final word. I very much hope and expect others will continue the research and write their own histories and contribute even more to our understanding of this important topic."

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