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Rep. Eastman Has Concerns About Commemorating Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway

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Photo by Glenn, Creative Commons Licensing.

The House passed a bill Wednesday commemorating the work of African American soldiers in the construction of the Alaska Highway, but not before Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) made some surprising statements about race.

SB 46, sponsored by Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla), establishes October 25 as African American Soldiers’ Contribution to Building the Alaska Highway Day.

“This is a story we should all know. It reminds us of our journey to become a country where all are treated equal. In fact, some refer to the Alaska Highway as the ‘Road to Civil Rights,’” said Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage).

Tarr carried SB 46 for Wilson on the House floor.

About 4,000 African American Army engineers in four segregated regiments — the 388th Engineer Battalion and the 93rd, 95th, and 97th Engineer General Services Regiments — helped build the ALCAN in eight months and 12 days.

They endured difficult conditions.

Katrina Beverly Gill, daughter of regimental surveyor Reginald Beverly, testified that her father lived in “substandard conditions such as living in tents with ice approximately one inch thick on the inside while white soldiers lived in buildings.”

Tec 5 James Mitchell’s daughter Ceylon Mitchell, an Air Force veteran herself, writes that African American soldiers, like her father, were not allowed into the villages because of segregation.

Indeed, Christine and Dennis McClure, who identify themselves as the “daughter and son-in-law of a white officer who served… with the segregated 93rd Engineers,” testified that the commander of American forces in Alaska marched the 97th out of Valdez immediately after they arrived because “he wouldn’t allow them near Alaska’s citizens.”

Nevertheless, building from the north and south, two engineering crews met on October 25, 1942, linking and finishing the ALCAN.

2017 is the 75th anniversary of the highway’s completion. Beverly, who is 102 years old, has said he would like to come to Alaska and speak for the celebration.

The contributions of African American soldiers to the ALCAN led to the desegregation of the armed forces, but have since largely been ignored or downplayed.

Wilson’s sponsor statement notes that in 1991, National Geographic deliberately removed them from a story about construction of the ALCAN.

“I had no idea black men had done anything like this,” General Colin Powell said in 1992 at an exhibit in Fairbanks. “They are deserving of recognition.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized them on the Senate floor in 2016, saying, “We thank the thousands of African-American servicemembers who for too long were dismissed and overlooked.

Rep. Eastman (paraphrasing): “All Soldiers Matter”

SB 46 is not a controversial bill. It passed the Senate unanimously and had 17 Senate co-sponsors. It has 23 cross-sponsors in the House.

When — not if — it is signed by Gov. Bill Walker, it will be added to the 38 Designated Days of Honor that already exist in statute.

Eastman listed many of those days. He said SB 46 is different.

“What we are doing in this particular day is something we have never done before as a state,” he said.

We’re encouraging and stating that Alaskans may observe with “suitable observances and exercises by civic groups and the public” the contributions of African American soldiers towards building the Alaska Highway. Now that’s a very different thing than we’ve done in the past. This will be the first time that our state has singled out a particular group or organization for recognition based on their race, their heritage. What we are not doing in this Act is recognizing all of those who have contributed towards building the Alaska Highway. What we’re not recognizing is the 341st Engineer Company, also the U.S. Army, who on one particular event, 12 American servicemen lost their lives constructing our highway. I inquired as to the nationalities and races of those soldiers. I wasn’t able to find it in the historical record. History didn’t seem to distinguish their race or their heritage.

“We’re not recognizing these individuals, and I have to stop, and I have to ask, ‘Why?’” Eastman continued. “Were their contributions any less great than those who are being recognized today? I would say, ‘No, they’re not.’”

“We ought to distinguish the contributions of the individuals and groups that we are recognizing and that we are commemorating and memorializing, and we ought to do that over and above any type of division amongst our population as Alaskans,” he said. “When we recognize veterans, let us recognize those veterans for their service, not the color of their skin, not their particular nationality or religion.”

Eastman said it would be more appropriate to honor the African American soldiers through a citation or resolution than a bill.

“We don’t recognize African American Firefighter Day, and I don’t think we should,” said Eastman, “not because there aren’t African American firefighters in this state who have and probably will lay their lives on the line in sacrifice to their fellow Alaskans. Let’s keep Alaska Firefighter Day for all firefighters. And let’s have a day for all Alaskans and all veteran servicemembers who contributed to building our highway, certainly before we then reach down and choose a particular minority within that group of veterans, who sacrificed in some cases their very lives.”

Ironically, Wilson listened to these remarks from the Elizabeth W. Peratrovich Gallery of the House chamber.

Eastman’s comments drew direct rebuttals from other House members.

“Why are this group of regiments that helped… construct the Alaska Highway being singled out? In simple terms, it’s because they were singled out,” House Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) said. “They had substandard tools. They had to use hand tools for everything they did. They were not given the same pieces of equipment and machinery that their white counterparts were doing. They were not allowed to stay in the cities. They had to remain in camps in 20-below-zero and even colder, in tents.”

“Why were they singled out? Because they were African American. That’s the reason why they were singled out,” Tuck continued. “Why are we singling them out? Not necessarily because they’re African American, but because they prevailed under those conditions and actually outperformed beyond anyone’s expectations. And they did that in spite of being singled out.”

Rep. DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) said, “To me, this isn’t the same as saying Black Firefighters Day… because today is very different. But you know what? The division, the racial division, was already made. The government made that racial division. So to acknowledge that and say, ‘These people that the government already separated out did a fabulous job,’ I’m just all for that.”

Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) noted that his father and two uncles served in segregated units during World War II.

“They would want us to vote ‘yes’ on this bill,” an emotional Claman told the House.

Bill Language Doesn’t Diminish Contributions of Others

While legislators distanced themselves from Eastman Wednesday, he is not alone in his perspective.

“Why… is the state considering recognizing only one race?” asked Anchorage resident Lisa Duntley in the only letter of opposition to SB 46. “If the Legislature wants to publicize the story of the crews, publicize the ENTIRE crew. Use photos and tell the story of how ALL of the men building the Alaska Highway worked equally as hard. Why demean the work of the white soldiers by not recognizing them?” (emphases in original)

“Please don’t make yet another headline about race,” Duntley implored.

Too late.

Eastman’s remarks and Duntley’s testimony are reminiscent of a response that developed to the Black Lives Matter movement: “All lives matter.”

At a rally in July, Kevin McGee of the Anchorage NAACP addressed this response.

“Let’s be clear,” said McGee. “We have said Black Lives Matter. We have never said that only Black Lives Matter. That was not us. In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported lives throughout history. Now we need your help with Black Lives Matter because Black lives are in danger.”

In other words, recognition of the condition of one race does not necessarily demean another, as Eastman and Duntley suggest.

“I think it’s important that this story be told,” Tuck said of SB 46. “In no way is this putting down anybody else that worked on the Alaska Highway.”

Eastman was the only member of the House to vote against SB 46.

Despite Eastman’s Remarks, Alaska Recognizes Races and Nationalities

This is not the first time Eastman has made a controversial vote.

In his first day in office, Eastman broke with House decorum by voting in opposition to Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) becoming Speaker of the House. The First Native Alaskan Speaker.

In February, Eastman was one of seven House minority members to vote against another proposed Designated Day of Honor.

HB 78 would make the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day. It would fall on the same day as Columbus Day.

Though Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kotzebue) said he chose Columbus Day in the spirit of inclusivity and to honor the meeting of Alaska Natives and people of European descent, Eastman supported an amendment that would have moved Indigenous Peoples Day so it did not overlap.

“I rise in support this morning of all Alaskans,” he said on the House floor. “I ask that the amendment pass so that, as a legislature, we can support all Alaskans, not set those who came before against those who came after.”

The amendment failed.

Eastman is developing a theme of not dividing Alaskans, but his claim Wednesday that Alaska has never before honored a group based on race or heritage is not true.

Juneteenth Day, celebrated on the third Saturday in June, commemorates the abolition of slavery and urges Alaskans “to reflect on the suffering endured by early African-Americans.”

Over the last year, Walker has recognized African American History Month, Filipino American History Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month. He also proclaimed the first week of May to be Days of Remembrance of Holocaust victims, specifically Jews, Romas, Sinti, and Slavic people, among others.

House Rules Chair Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) reminded Eastman that she has a bill that recognizes Hmong and Lao veterans with a U.S. flag on their driver licenses.

Alaska also honors based on age. Eastman himself cited Older Alaskans’ Day and Children’s Day in his speech, though he didn’t express concern about age discrimination.

Women Veterans Day honors a specific gender. Again, Eastman didn’t express concern.

Tarr noted that part of the 75th anniversary celebration of the ALCAN’s completion includes a Women of the ALCAN calendar. She said she does not feel excluded because women are being honored that way while African American soldiers are getting SB 46.

“This recognition should have come long ago,” Tarr said of SB 46, “but today we stand together in doing it.”

Craig Tuten moved from Florida to Alaska with his wife Rachael in 2006. He studied history at Florida State University while everybody else was having a good time. It is hard to list a low-wage job he hasn't briefly held.

3 COMMENTS

  1. My uncle served as regimental supply officer for the 392nd(Colored): when the unit was ‘volunteered’ for the Battle of the Bulge, he reported he was given 24 hours to find ammunition for the outfit. Black engineering troops were normally only allowed unloaded weapons!

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