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A major difference between Southern States and Alaska is the Southern States did not pretend then or now that Jim Crow laws discriminating on the basis of race never happened. The history of segregation and the fight to end it is a part of Southern history. In Alaska most citizens who were not here at the time are surprised with disbelief to find the circumstances also happened here.

...Paul Ongtooguk

Desegregation In Alaska’s Schools: Alaska Yesterday
By Stephen Haycox
Anchorage Times, Anchorage, Alaska
January 26, 1986
Used with permission of the author

School desegregation, which has played such a significant role in American social policy, has also had a long and difficult history in Alaska’s development, stretching back to the beginning of the century.

By the time mission patriarch Sheldon Jackson left the territory in 1907, separate schools for white and native children were a recognized and accepted fact of Alaskan existence. But the implications of such an arrangement took some time to discover.

At that time in American history it was still widely thought that the only future for Indians was complete assimilation into white society. The idea of permanent, self-determining Indian communities with legitimate, independent existence was not yet accepted. Indians were not yet considered citizens; they were viewed as wards under the protection of federal government.

As was the case in other parts of the country, some natives in Alaska voluntarily became well assimilated. They adopted western dress, lived in separate houses in small, nuclear families, were economically self-sufficient, and paid taxes.

Not surprisingly, some assimilated natives sought to have their children admitted to the white schools. Because of problems with attendance and wide varieties of literacy, mastery of subjects in the Indian schools often progressed more slowly than in the white schools.

Initially, however, the courts prohibited native children from attending the white schools. In 1908 a federal district judge ruled that even though Indians might be well assimilated, continued association with other Indians, assimilated or not, meant they were still Indian, and therefore not entitled to attend white schools, which were for whites! Indians began to wonder if there was anything they might do to qualify for full acceptance into white society, or whether just the fact of being Indian would always keep them subordinate.

Probably most responsible for confronting the implications of school attendance policy was the early Tlingit leader William Paul. He would be eclipsed by other native leaders in later years as the chief spokesman for Indian rights in Alaska, but in the 1920’s he had no peer in that role.

Following a resolution on school desegregation adopted at the annual Alaska Native Brotherhood convention in Wrangell in 1920, Paul met with the head of Alaska Indian schools, Charles Hawkesworth. Shortly after the meeting Hawkesworth, who was sympathetic to the cause of equal rights for Indians, announced that the Wrangell Indian school would close for the next school session. As a result, Indian children in Wrangell would have to attend the white school.

Territorial and federal officials protested vigorously, and within a few weeks the U.S. Commission of Education in Washington countermanded Hawkesworths’ order.

There the situation likely would have remained except for the U.S. Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, granting full citizenship to natives. Now Indians could hope for equal opportunity with white citizens.

But still territorial schools in many places did not accept Indian children, and in 1929 Paul brought suit against the Ketchikan school board for refusing to admit Indian students.

This time the court found for the Indian children. As citizens they were entitled to attend schools established for citizen children. It was a major victory that opened white schools to those native children who sought entrance to them.

Stephen Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska – Anchorage.

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