'I Fought For That Seat'

Artist Matt Hamilton reveals his work honoring the Jones' Family on Sept. 10 during an artwork induction ceremony at Tongass Historical Museum. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Ketchikan educators, Alaska Native community members, artists and students came together earlier this month to share the story of Irene and Nettie Jones in words and pictures at the Tongass Historical Museum.

The history of how then 12-year-old Irene Jones, an Alaska Native student, and her mother Nettie fought for her right to attend Ketchikan’s segregated Main School in the late 1920s is unknown by many.

But Schoenbar Middle School students — under the guidance of several local educators and Irene’s own daughter, Judy Needham — created “I Fought For That Seat,” a documentary that tells the story of how the Jones family sued the Ketchikan School Board and the district’s then-superintendent for Irene’s right to attend Main School during a time when Native and mixed-race children were expected to attend a segregated school established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The documentary is the first project made by Ketchikan students about the piece of local history.

And to celebrate the project’s creation an event was hosted on Sept. 10 at the Tongass Historical Museum, during which Ketchikan Indian Community President Gloria Burns issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 10 as Irene and Nettie Jones Day, and local artist Matt Hamilton unveiled an art piece dedicated to the Joneses.

That date was chosen because more than 90 years ago, on Sept. 10, 1929, Irene and Nettie Jones filed the writ of mandamus (a legal document which compels a subordinate body to take a particular action) against the Ketchikan School District and  the Ketchikan School Board, with legal representation from Tlingit lawyer William Paul Sr.

The hour-long event at the Tongass Historical Museum was held in-person, but limited to a small number of attendees in order to observe COVID-19 social distancing recommendations. Felix Wong provided recording and livestream services for the event, which also was hosted via Zoom. The Daily News attended via Zoom that evening.

After a land acknowledgement by District Curriculum Director Alonso Escalante (who also acknowledged the efforts of the school district’s Title VI Committee members), KSD Cultural Coordinator Teresa Varnell opened the event by explaining how the concept for Schoenbar’s documentary came together.

Varnell said she had known Judy Needham — one of Irene Jones’ four children and a grandaughter of Nettie Jones — since her childhood. Their relationship contributed to the project.

Varnell asked Needham if she’d be interested in helping to create a digital piece to share the story of how her mother and grandmother fought for Irene’s right to attend Main School.

“And my hope was to have students create a piece that would help teachers,” Varnell described,” Varnell said.

Needham agreed, and the wheels were set in motion.

Varnell then approached Schoenbar Middle School teacher Chad Frey and asked him if he was interested in the project.

“It took him about one and a half seconds and he was like, ‘yes,’” Varnell said.

Frey then assigned the project to the students in his eighth-grade documentary filmmaking class.

“Chad (Frey) took over this project and ran with it,” Varnell said. “I would join from time to time. We've been bringing knowledge-bearers (in) from time to time as the project progressed, but really this is his baby, him and his kids, him and those students and the families. And so I'm extremely excited to be able to be a part of this project.”

The documentary was finished by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Everyone in attendance on Sept. 10’s unveiling event watched in silence while “I Fought For That Seat” played publicly for the first time.

The documentary is composed of different clips prepared by the students, who worked in pairs. It begins with a description of how, by 1898, there were 14 federal-run schools and 15 mission schools throughout Alaska.

The documentary detailed in chronological order how Nettie Jones — Irene’s mother — was born in March 1894, and raised seven children with her husband Paul, who made his livelihood from fishing. Nettie and Paul Jones wished for all their children to be able to attend Ketchikan’s Main School, where education was thought to be of a higher quality than that available at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school established for the education of Native or mixed-race students at 429 Deermount St.

According to the documentary, some Native children were able to enroll in Main School if they played basketball or did not appear to be of Native descent.

Irene initially was enrolled in Main School in early September 1929, before being denied her seat at the school just a few days later by Superintendent Tony Karnes, who said that there was not enough room at the school — a claim later shown to be false, the documentary continued.

Irene Jones’ family twice appealed for her ability to attend Main School, and were denied each time by Karnes.

The documentary stated that district officials told the Jones that if they let Irene attend Main School, they would have to allow other Native students to enroll in the segregated school.

Jones was not the only student to leave Main School — three other Native students around the same time were denied a place in a classroom.

But, Irene Jones was determined to receive her education at Main School.

The Joneses hired Tlingit lawyer William Paul Sr. to represent them. Paul Sr. had already tackled other cases involving segregation, and was well-known for his work representing Native fishing areas against fish trap schemes, according to the documentary.

Working with Paul Sr., Irene and Nettie Jones filed a writ of mandamus against the Ketchikan School District and the Ketchikan School Board, alleging that Irene’s 14th Amendment rights were being violated. In the documentary, the students note that Paul Sr. found out that, unlike what Karnes had alleged, there wasn’t a lack of room in Main School’s classrooms — the desks had been removed.

And on Sept. 10, 1929, Paul Sr. and Nettie Jones successfully brought their lawsuit against the Ketchikan School District and the Ketchikan School Board.

Presiding Judge Justin W. Harding later ruled that the Ketchikan School Board had failed to show cause of why Irene Jones could not attend that school, and Irene was permitted to again enroll in Main School.

In the documentary, Irene Jones is quoted as saying, “I fought for that desk, I’m going to sit in it.”

Jones graduated Main School at age 17, and later had a stroke that caused her to have to learn again how to read, write, walk and talk. She went on to have four children, including Judy Neetum.

On Dec. 27, 1979, 50 years after Paul Sr. and the Jones filed their writ of mandamus, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District issued Resolution 172 recognizing Paul Sr. and Irene’s mother Nettie for their work in securing equal education for Native students.

After the documentary came to an end — punctuated by a chorus of applause — Frey addressed the crowd about his involvement in creating the piece.

“I feel very proud to be standing in here today with so many awesome people,” Frey said. “Today is Sept. 10 of 2021. Some 92 years ... after the Jones family filed their writ of mandamus stating that the school district needs to follow the law.”

Recalling the moment that Varnell asked him if he’d be interested in taking the project on, Frey simply said “I was on it.”

“I was on this project from the moment she talked to me about it,” he continued. “ … I went on a really long journey about this piece of history that not a lot of people from this community know about.”

Neetum visited Frey’s classroom throughout the process, sharing her stories with the students and advising on their work.

“From there, I began storyboarding this piece of history from the presentation that was given by Judy.”

Along the way, Frey said that Ketchikan School District Interim Superintendent Melissa Johnson helped supply “missing pieces.”

Frey recalled that Johnson gave him a stack of court documents, including everything from the writ of mandamus to the resolution passed by the district in 1979.

“She (Johnson) had what was filed by William Paul Sr. on the behalf of the Jones family,” Frey described. “She had the court documents and what was said in court during the court proceedings. And as I was looking through the papers, I mean, (I) just started reading, you know, what the witnesses were saying in court. … All that information just kind of came together (and) it was unbelievable.”

During the production process, Frey and his students also reached out to staff at the Tongass Historical Museum for pictures of old Ketchikan, and took their own shots of Schoenbar and surrounding areas. Terri Burrs also supplied music for the documentary, and Frey’s daughter helped in recording voiceovers.

“I broke the students into groups, pretty much production groups,” Frey explained. “And, we had over like 60 shots that we had to take for this production. And so in order for that to happen, I had to show kids about photography and videography, and how to read a story board and how to do voiceovers and how to edit the video using a program, you know, the basic steps for making a documentary. And that took a long time, that took at least a quarter just to do that.”

With an edited copy of the documentary, Frey said it was important for the class to invite the people — like Needham and Varnell — who had helped to supply them with information and knowledge for the project, to make sure they were accurately showing the story of Irene and Nettie Jones.

“And so we'd have to change it again,” Frey said of the process. “And if anybody's ever worked with middle school kids, telling them to redo something over and over and over and over and over again is not an easy task to do. So after multiple edits, multiple times, students had to re-record and reshoot.

But by the end of the school year, the project was complete.

“It was a lot of work in order to get the story as right as possible, motivate students to want to do this project, the multiple edits we had to do, to get it out to the public,” Frey said. “However, it was a process I’m never going to forget.”

After Frey, Matt Hamilton delivered remarks about the process of creating an art piece to represent the historic women and their fight for education equality. That creation will be sent around the school district in coming weeks.

“I really appreciate having this opportunity to show off my art, but more than anything, it’s the message behind the art that I truly believe in,” Hamilton said. “There’s, growing up in this town, seventh-generation Ketchikan, it’s amazing all the stories that you don’t know.”

The mural depicting Irene and Nettie Jones was inspired by his “Unsung Heroes of Ketchikan” project that he has worked on throughout the years.

“I saw the power that that (project) had and I was like, ‘Man I really think I can keep going with that,’” Hamilton said.

Then he heard the story of how Irene and Nettie Jones persevered for equal education so many years ago.

“And I was like, ‘This needs to be told,’” Hamilton said. “And for years, I didn't have the momentum to build a piece on it.”

That momentum came when he heard about the work being done by Frey and Varnell to tell the story through “I Fought For That Seat.”

“I was just taken back by it,” said Hamilton. “There was a moment when I was working on this piece … and what happened was my daughter came in and she sees these women on my easel that I’m painting and she goes, ‘Who’s this?’ So I tell her the story and she’s just flabbergasted that that would happen.”

He continued, “She was like, ‘Was this like Abe Lincoln days?’ And I was like, ‘Nope, it was a lot (more recent)  than you thought.’”

He said his daughter then asked if the Joneses were famous because of their efforts, and when he said they were not, Hamilton realized he had to finish the project to bring more attention to the subject.

As he worked through the process, Hamilton said Varnell offered to help develop the project with him.

“So I got the big scheme of it, and I started looking up quotes,” he explained. “Not by inspiring people, but bad people that were against this. To help me finish this. Because I do better with resistance. I am friction to that resistance. I love being a fly on the wall.”

One of those quotes really bothered Hamilton, stemming from a time when Native children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. The quote, Hamilton read during the event (without naming who is believed to have said it), was “Our job is to kill the indian and keep the man.”

“And I finished the piece that night,” he said.

Hamilton noted that he was partially inspired by Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the “Obey” brand designs, because Hamilton has always enjoyed the way that Ferry depicted women in his pieces.

After Hamilton spoke, Gloria Burns thanked the Schoenbar students for their dedication to sharing Irene and Nettie Jones’ story, and then issued a proclamation on behalf of KIC.

“Thank you for telling the story of our people in a respectful way that shines a light on our community,” Burns said.

“Whether or not they started fully engaged or not, in the end, these kids are monumental in that they’re creating this different way of creating and learning within the district,” she addressed the room.

Burns presented the students (who were not present) with new backpacks, gift cards and HydroFlask brand water bottles for their work.

Burns also gave gifts to Varnell, Needham, Hamilton and Felix Wong, who was streaming the museum’s event, to recognize their work in bringing the celebration to the community. She thanked Dave Kiffer, Irene Dundas, Alonso Escalante, Sonya Skan, Frey and the Title VI Committee, as well.

She also said that she’s “been excited by the variety of projects that I’ve been seeing coming as a labor of love from the really newly rejuvenated Title VI committee, Indian-Parent Committee, for the district.”

Burns said she was also glad “to see all the amazing stories that we know in our heart, and we know as a Native community, to see them coming to the forefront.”

“I’m excited to see the difference that this group of people and this parent committee that they did in changing the way in which our Title VI funds were being spent to empower our students within the district, and the beautiful amazing ways that people not from our Native community are coming together to network and raise that awareness.”

She then closed her comments by reading her proclamation “recognizing the determination of Nettie Jones and her family.”

Irene and Nettie Jones Day honors “Nettie Jones and all those who have advocated for educational equity for our children by following in her footsteps and speaking truth to power, and encourage all employees and tribal members to celebrate the important role in Nettie Jones played in our tribal community in regards to education and knowledge, the tribe’s continuing dedication to education and education reform for generations, for this generation, future generations.”

The proclamation also said that more work toward educational equality will be done in the memory of Nettie Jones.

“And we admire her and her family’s determination to get her daughter the best possible education that they could hope for at the time,” she read.

Speaking about the documentary made by the Schoenbar students, Burns said that one of the most “profound” things she saw was “the recognition of what it was like to walk alone or to feel alone that the Jones family had to experience.”

“And then to have that powerful story, that powerful experience, almost erased from our community, to have given so much and for all us to have benefited so greatly, was just so powerful,” she said. “... And so I’m just so excited to have this moment to recognize on this day what a difference a family can make.”

The Ketchikan City Council on Sept. 16 issued a proclamation signed by City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen which declared Sept. 25 as “Irene Jones Day.”

The proclamation also “recognizes the students of Ketchikan Schoenbar Middle School for their exceptional work” in the creation of “I Fought For That Seat.”

“We retain the inspiration to reach out beyond our borders to those who can learn from the story of a young girl who stood alone in her conviction, to unite an entire community,” the proclamation read.