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2/16/2013
Peratrovich's work

No one likes to be treated like a second-class citizen.

Elizabeth Peratrovich included.

Mrs. Peratrovich was a Tlingit woman credited with changing the course of civil rights in Alaska. Her courageous and eloquent speech convinced the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1945 to pass the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act, the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

That legislation and Mrs. Peratrovich's efforts toward that end are celebrated on Feb. 16.

Ironically, Mrs. Peratrovich was born on the day Alaska, along with the other states, celebrates its independence and freedom — July 4. Her birth is recorded in 1911 in Petersburg. She grew up there and in Ketchikan, the adopted daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. She attended Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

As a girl, she traveled throughout Southeast Alaska with her parents, meeting with Tlingits to whom they ministered.

She attended what is now Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., returning to Alaska with a husband, Roy Peratrovich, a part Tlingit gentleman from Klawock.

Mrs. Peratrovich worked in the Klawock canneries, but she and Roy had a keen interest in Native issues, joining the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood, respectively. He was elected Klawock's mayor.

The couple moved to Juneau, seeking a better life for their family — only to discover they weren't welcome in some places in the territorial capital.

In the early 1940s, Natives were seated in separate sections of the movie theaters, if allowed in at all. They were often altogether unwelcome in other establishments, presented with signs that stated: "No Natives allowed."

However, they were allowed to join the nation's armed forces and fight on its behalf.

Clearly, discrimination ruled the day.

The Peratroviches lobbied then-Gov. Ernest Gruening and the Legislature concerning this insufferable treatment of Alaskans who simply wanted to raise their families in a fashion equal to and with equal opportunities as those of non-Native Alaskans.

In '45 the territorial House passed anti-discrimination legislation; it then stalled in the Senate. One opposing senator argued that Natives had emerged from savagery only a short time earlier and had not 5,000 years of civilization.

Mrs. Peratrovich confronted the senator during public testimony. She began: "I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."

Beyond her opening, she explained how it felt to watch her children being denied access to movie theaters or to be confronted with segregated seating, and how it was for her family to be denied housing in Juneau's best neighborhoods because of their ethnicity. She spoke from the heart of an Alaskan, a woman, a wife and a mother to other parents with spouses who sought opportunities of their own in Alaska.

Enough had been said. The Senate opposition had lost the argument. The anti-discrimination legislation passed by a vote of 11-5 on Feb. 8, 1945. It became law on Feb. 16.

One of the two House galleries in the Alaska State Capitol is named to honor Mrs. Peratrovich; one of the two Senate galleries is named for Ketchikan's late Sen. Robert Ziegler.

Mrs. Peratrovich made an outstanding contribution to Alaska in her 47 years. While fighting for her family and the Natives, she opened the door to equality for all who might be discriminated against in Alaska and welcomed other states to follow that example.