Published on January 25, 2014 by Amy
Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich (/ˈprætəvɪtʃ/; née Wanamaker; July 4, 1911 – December 1, 1958), Tlingit nation, was an important civil rights activist; she worked on behalf of equality for Alaska Natives. In the 1940s, she was credited with advocacy that gained the passage of the territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
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Elizabeth Peratrovich was born on July 4, 1911 in Petersburg, Alaska, and was a member of the Lukaax̱.ádi clan, in the Raven moiety of the Tlingit nation. She was adopted when very young by Andrew and Mary Wanamaker, a Tlingit couple, and named Elizabeth Wanamaker. Andrew was a Presbyterian lay minister. Elizabeth grew up with them in Petersburg and Ketchikan, Alaska. She attended Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, and the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington (now part of Western Washington University).
On December 15, 1931, Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich (1908–1989), also a Tlingit, who worked in a cannery. They lived in Klawock, where Roy was elected to four terms as mayor.
Looking for greater opportunities for work and their children, they moved to Juneau, where they found more extensive social and racial discrimination against Alaska Natives. They had children: daughter Loretta, and sons Roy, Jr. and Frank.
The Peratrovich family later moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, where Roy pursued an economics degree at St. Francis Xavier University. From there they moved to Denver, Colorado, where Roy studied at the University of Denver. In the 1950s, the Peratroviches moved to Oklahoma, and then back to Alaska.
Elizabeth Peratrovich died of cancer on December 1, 1958. She is buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Juneau, Alaska alongside her husband Roy.
Son Roy Peratrovich, Jr., became a noted civil engineer in Alaska. He designed the Brotherhood Bridge in Juneau, which carries the Glacier Highway over the Mendenhall River. In 1979, he co-founded the firm Peratrovich Nottingham & Drage, now known as PND Engineers. After retiring from the engineering profession, he worked as an artist based on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
In 1941, while living in Juneau, the Peratroviches found more discrimination, having difficulty finding housing and seeing signs banning Native entry to public facilities. They petitioned the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, to ban the “No Natives Allowed” signs then common at public accommodations in that city and elsewhere. The Anti-Discrimination Act was defeated by the territorial legislature in 1943. As leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Peratroviches lobbied the territory’s legislators and represented their organizations in their testimony.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was the last to testify before the territorial Senate voted on the bill in 1945, and her impassioned testimony was considered decisive.
I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.
She was responding to earlier comments by territorial senator Allen Shattuck of Juneau. He had earlier asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?” The Senate voted 11-5 for the House Resolution 14, providing “…full and equal accommodations, facilities, and privileges to all citizens in places of public accommodations within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska; to provide penalties for violation.” The bill was signed into law by Governor Gruening, nearly 20 years before the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Acts of the territorial legislature required final approval from the U.S. Congress, which affirmed it. (Bob Bartlett was noted for his efficiency in that regard.)
Fran Ulmer, who represented Juneau in the Alaska House of Representatives (and who later became lieutenant governor of Alaska), in 1992 said the following about Peratrovich’s testimony:
She talked about herself, her friends, her children, and the cruel treatment that consigned Alaska Natives to a second-class existence. She described to the Senate what it means to be unable to buy a house in a decent neighborhood because Natives aren’t allowed to live there. She described how children feel when they are refused entrance into movie theaters, or see signs in shop windows that read “No dogs or Natives allowed”.
On February 6, 1988, the Alaska Legislature established February 16 (the day in 1945 on which the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed) as “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day”, in order to honor her contributions: “for her courageous, unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and bring about equal rights in Alaska” (Alaska Statutes 44.12.065).
The Elizabeth Peratrovich Award was established in her honor by the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
In 1992, Gallery B of the Alaska House of Representatives chamber in the Alaska State Capitol was renamed in her honor.Of the four galleries located in the respective two chambers, the Peratrovich Gallery is the only one named for someone other than a former legislator (the other House gallery was named for Warren A. Taylor; the Senate galleries were named for former Senators Cliff Groh and Robert H. Ziegler).
In 2009, a documentary about Peratrovich’s groundbreaking civil rights advocacy premiered on October 22 that year at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. Entitled For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, the film was scheduled to air as a PBS documentary film in November 2009. The film was produced by Blueberry Productions, Inc. and primarily written by Jeffry Lloyd Silverman of Anchorage.
A park named for Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich is located in downtown Anchorage. It encompasses the lawn surrounding Anchorage’s former city hall, with a small amphitheater in which concerts and other performances are held.