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Buried in the heart of Alaska’s history is the story of the Black Alaskan community, people who came to the territory in the 19th century. Black settlers arrived in what is now Alaska over a century ago.

Black Alaskans may have a limited presence, but the Black community is a major player in Alaska’s history. In the 1800s, Alaskan whaling crews were diverse, and often included Black and BIPOC whalers.

Black men also helped to build highways in the state, and worked as part of the Alaskan-Canadian road network. While racism has always been a factor, Black workers earned respect in World War II. 

Among famous historical Black Alaskans is Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the first Black lawyer in the entire state. The legendary defender made a home in Wasilla, Alaska, in 1958, and she opened two law firms. 

"Black Lives in Alaska" chronicles history of Black Alaskans
Mahala Ashley Dickerson (1912–2007). Anchorage Museum

Rich history of African Americans in Alaska

Dickerson was also a trailblazing feminist. One of her most enduring legacies involved a case ensuring equal pay.

In fact, Black communities in Alaska were often at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Teaming up with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities,  Black Alaskans successfully passed the Equal Rights Act in 1945, an early measure by the territory to limit race-based discrimination in public places.

Author and historian Ian Hartman wrote the history of Black Alaskans in “Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest.” The book came out last year and is available on Amazon. 

According to Hartman, Black communities in Alaska are often overlooked or forgotten. He recognizes the importance of bringing to light the contributions of Black Alaskans.

“I think that there’s a whole other history of Alaska that is about the people, and it’s about our diverse communities. And I think sometimes we forget how that diversity has really shaped our history.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...

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