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African American History in the Archives: Part 1

Guest blogger: Megan

Last week, we had a visit to the Archives by Channel 2 (KTUU) to film a segment on African American history in anticipation of February’s Black History Month.  The collection they were most interested in seeing and talking to us about – and by “us” I really mean “Arlene,” as MC and I hid in our respective offices once the camera was turned on – was the George Harper Blacks in Alaska History Project records .  Once we found that out, there was a collective sigh among us archivists, as the Harper collection is at once one of our most significant and most problematic collections.

In 1995, George Harper, a retired Anchorage computer programmer, co-founded the Blacks in Alaska History Project, Inc. The purpose of the project was to collect information and historical photographs that document the presence and contributions of African Americans in Alaska, as well as to create exhibits and lectures publicizing these resources.  The project was a success, and when Harper died in 2004, he left the entirety of what he had collected to A&SC.  At the center of this collection are over 1,000 photographic prints and negatives documenting such subjects as black U. S. Army Engineers who constructed the Alaska Highway during World War II, black women in Alaska history, and blacks who participated in the Alaska Gold Rush.  A great resource, right? Yes — but herein also lies the problem I mentioned: nearly all of these photographs are reproductions of originals that are held by other individuals and repositories.  As such, we do not own any rights to these images and therefore cannot allow researchers to reproduce or publish our copies of them.  The same is true of many of Harper’s other research materials in the collection, which are also photocopies of documents held elsewhere.  Harper did a great service to the history of African Americans in Alaska by drawing together these resources from disparate places.  However, the fact that they are not original material means that the collection can be used for little more than browsing in our research area.

All this attention on the Harper collection got us thinking about Alaska’s Black history and what other significant collections we have that relate to it–and that are more flexible, when it comes to use–than Harper.  So we decided that our next few posts will be devoted to talking about these collections and sharing our favorite parts of them, in celebration of Black History Month.

I’ll start things off with the Willard L. Bowman papersuaa-hmc-0073-1-e-2Willard L. Bowman was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1919 and moved to Anchorage in 1950.  He initially worked as a laborer and later as a labor management consultant and maintained an active involvement with the Anchorage NAACP.  In 1963, Bowman was appointed the first Director of the Alaska Human Rights Commission by Governor Egan.  He was elected to his first term in the Alaska State House of Representatives in 1970 and was one of the first African-Americans to hold office in the Alaska legislature.  He served as Democratic representative until his death from cancer in 1975 and maintained a consistently liberal and humanitarian record throughout his terms.  Our collection of Willard L. Bowman’s papers include his political and public addresses, papers concerning his campaigns in 1970 and 1974, photographs of the legislator, and material relating to the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights.

For me, the highlights of Bowman’s collection are the texts of several speeches he gave in 1964 and 1965 regarding civil rights and discrimination against black Alaskans.  These speeches, given in his capacity was director of the Human Rights Commission, are passionate pleas for tolerance, and the force of his words nearly leaps off the page.  “I believe discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin is morally wrong,” Bowman wrote in an undated speech in front of a white, Lutheran church congregation. “As one who has lived his whole life under its oppressive handicap, I know how it affects the strength and fibre of a people.  I can only hope and pray you believe this too.  The appeal I make to you, as Christians, and as Alaskans, is that BELIEVING IS NOT ENOUGH.  Will you help by living it?”  Bowman’s papers are a testament to man who indeed lived his commitment to equal rights for all Alaskans.

To be continued in our next post, “African American History in the Archives: Part 2.”

One Comment

  1. Your information on African Americans in Alaska is eye-opening. I learned more in 5 minutes than I have learned about the contributions of African Americans living in 40 years. Twenty years after I visited the State of Alaska. Thank you.

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