On Juneteenth, a Bristol Bay historian talks about racism and diversity in Alaska

Jun 22, 2020

In honor of Juneteenth this year, KDLG spoke with a Bristol Bay historian about the history of Black Americans, and racism, in the state of Alaska and here in Bristol Bay. 

 

 

People who worked at the Diamond J Cannery in Bristol Bay gather for a photo.
Credit Courtesy of Henry and Helen Herrmann, KATM Collection, National Park Service

 

One hundred and fifty-five years ago on the 19th of June, the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free, a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

 

Since that day in 1865, what’s come to be known as Juneteenth, the holiday has spread throughout communities in the United States as a day celebrating the belated liberation of Black people in America, as well as a time to reflect on continued inequity. This year, the holiday is receiving heightened attention amidst the nationwide protests against racist police brutality and inequality. 

 

 

“I think Alaskans like to think that we are different than the lower 48, but the reason why Alaska studies is mandatory in schools is because of racist attacks on Alaska Native people in the late part of the 20th century,” said Katie Ringsmuth, the historian and director of the NN Cannery History Project.

 

“Racism absolutely still exists, and you see the systematic racism even in how we speak about rural versus urban, it’s embedded in there [...] However, it’s also important to recognize that Alaska is going to pass an anti-discrimination act in the 1940s, 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education,” she said. 

The legislature initially failed to pass an anti-discrimination bill in 1943. Elizabeth Peratrovitch, a Tlingit leader, championed another version of the bill two years later, in 1945. 

Bristol Bay’s salmon industry in the 1800s was predominantly Alaska Native and white. Most of the cannery workers were Chinese, until the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s, when local governments, and the United States Congress, passed a series of acts severely restricting Chinese immigration and therefore Chinese immigrants' ability to work in the U.S.

 

“African American story, it’s really about the power of African American purchase of canned salmon,” Ringsmuth said.  

She added that the American South was a large market for Alaska canned salmon. That marketing was overtly racist -- some salmon labels even referenced slavery. There were also more insidious forms of racism.

“In those days, they put the bad cans off to the side, so those were sold in markets… in African American communities. So the lesser brands, the brands that were not considered high-end, those were made and targeted to the African American community, and we’re talking, this is back in the turn of the century,” said Ringsmuth.

The numbers of Black workers in Bristol Bay canneries was very low, Ringsmuth explained.

 

“But nevertheless there’s a photograph of a cannery crew which I think is Diamond J, if I’m correct, and you look at the faces of the crew and this is probably the early 1930s when the photo was taken and it is a multicultural story,” she said.  

“Alaska canneries were places of discrimination, racism, and then later when women come onto the scene, sexism, they’re also sites where you see change occur too,” she added, saying that minority communities in the canneries levied lawsuits that forced change in the discriminatory practices of the plants in the 1970s. 

In other areas of Alaska during the late 1940s, the work of Black Americans in the military on the AlCan Highway helped convince President Truman to integrate the troops, even as restrictive covenants in some Alaskan cities barred Black people from purchasing homes in certain areas. 

Ringsmuth ultimately sees historical projects, like the NN Cannery project, as a way for people to learn about Alaska’s history of diversity and growth.

“You have these places, our military bases, we have neighborhoods that are some of the most diverse in the nation, we have industry like the fishing industry that is multinational, trans-national if you will, even the salmon come from all over the world, so how can we use that to empower ourselves, and I think that’s really the question, and that’s at the end of the day what the NN Cannery Project hopes to do.” 

Alaska State Senator Elvi Grey-Jackson announced Friday that she will propose legislation next year to designate the 19th of June as a state Juneteenth holiday. Alaska currently designates the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth. 

In the press release, Senator Grey-Jackson said, “Establishing Juneteenth as an official day of recognition in Alaska not only acknowledges the wrongful enslavement of African-Americans, but also recognizes there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in this country to establish equity for all Americans.”

 

Contact the author at sage@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.