Honor the woman who began a new era in Alaskan racial relations; honor the American activist Elizabeth Peratrovich on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, observed on February 16. She fought for equal rights for Native Alaskans her entire life, and so, on February 16 each year, Alaskans get together to commemorate this legend. While this is not a public holiday across the U.S., some Alaskan businesses, shops, and institutions close in honor of this day.
History of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day
Born an Alaska Native of the Lukaax̱ clan of the Tlingit nation (also spelled Tlinkit), Peratrovich faced discrimination from a very young age. This is where the seeds of her activism career were sown.
She married fellow activist Roy Peratrovich in 1933, and eight years later, moved with her family to Juneau, Alaska for better access to lawmakers who could help the couple affect change in their community. The couple faced the same discrimination there and were even turned away when trying to buy a house, on account of their racial identity. The same year they moved, in December, the couple spotted a ‘No Natives Allowed’ sign on the door of an inn. They were outraged at this and demanded action. They wrote a letter to Alaskan Governor Ernest H. Gruening, stating that native boys were fighting right alongside white boys in World War II, to protect the freedom the latter enjoyed.
This letter launched Peratrovich’s campaign to pass an anti-discriminatory bill. With the support of Governor Gruening, she pushed the bill to the House, where it failed in a tie vote in 1943. Peratrovich refused to be discouraged, however, and traveled with her husband around Alaska, urging Native Americans to join their fight.
By 1945, after years of work, a second anti-discrimination bill was put before the Alaska Senate. When asked by an opponent who these people, “barely out of savagery” were, who wanted to associate with people that had years of civilization behind them, Peratrovich had a clear response. She took the floor to say, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.” She also asserted that this bill would officially recognize the problem of racial discrimination and show intent to overcome it. Her passionate plea was met with thunderous applause and resounding favor state-wide. And perhaps best of all, the historic Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 was passed.
She continued her work until the day she passed at the age of 47. She was buried beside her husband in the shade of a Sitka spruce in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery. Each year on this day, a groundskeeper opens access to this gravesite for people to pay their respects.
In 1988, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper established Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on April 21 to honor her commitment to bringing racial equality to Alaska. To honor the day the Anti-Discrimination Act was approved, and the date of the celebration was later changed to February 16.
On this day each year, Alaskans honor her memory by revisiting her work and visiting her gravesite. Public monuments and parks are named after her, and she has a place of honor in everyone’s minds.
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day timeline
Mostly due to Elizabeth Peratrovich's efforts, a historic law is passed in Alaska that addresses racial discrimination.
Almost 19 years after Alaska’s landmark bill, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; it comes into effect all over America.
The “New York Times” runs a series, ‘Overlooked No More;’ they publish a belated obituary titled ‘Overlooked No More: Elizabeth Peratrovich, Rights Advocate for Alaska Natives’ as part of this series.
On the 75th anniversary of the Anti-Discriminatory Bill, the U.S. Mint releases five million $1 coins featuring Peratrovich’s portrait, the name of the bill, and the symbol of the Tlingit Raven moiety (or descent group) of which she was a member.
Google honors Peratrovich in a Google Doodle released in Canada and the U.S.; this gives our day further prominence.
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day FAQs
What is Alaska Civil Rights Day?
The Native Voices website states that the Alaska legislature declared February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day/Alaska Civil Rights Day.
What did Elizabeth Peratrovich do?
Peratrovich, her husband, and some others were behind the push to pass Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. This was the first such law enacted across the U.S., and it paved the way for future actions.
Is Elizabeth Peratrovich still alive?
Peratrovich passed away in 1958 after a battle with cancer. She was 47 years old at the time.
How to Observe Elizabeth Peratrovich Day
Read literature about this legend
There are plenty of articles, papers, and even books written about Elizabeth Peratrovich’s life. Find relevant ebooks, e.t.c., online, or go old school and buy a book about her from your local bookstore or find one at the library.
Learn more about her
You can check out the 2009 documentary, “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska,” or listen to the “She's History” podcast by filmmaker Laura Boersma, which features an episode on our heroine.
Take a walk through Peratrovich’s life
Peratrovich and her family’s work and life have been carefully protected by the National Museum of the American Indian branch of the Smithsonian Institute. Additionally, there is also a Peratrovich Gallery in the Alaska House of Representatives for those who visit this area. You can take physical tours, or check if these places offer virtual tours too.
5 Interesting Facts About Elizabeth Peratrovich And Her Work
Making history in more ways than one
The 1945 Anti-Discriminatory Law makes Alaska the first U.S. state to abolish racial discrimination since the 19th century.
Continuing the family legacy
Elizabeth’s sons followed in their mother's footsteps; older son Roy Jr. designed Juneau’s special Brotherhood Bridge (named in honor of the Alaskan Native Brotherhood), and younger son Frank was the Juneau Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Operations Officer.
Taking knitting to work
Peratrovich would knit while attending legislative sessions and did so even during her famous speech to the House in 1945.
Her speech was lauded everywhere
“The Daily Alaska Empire” was full of praise for Elizabeth’s 1945 speech in front of the Alaska Senate; they said it was the “neatest performance” and shamed the opposition into a “defensive whisper.”
Peratrovich enjoyed watching wrestling
She knew all Gorgeous George’s moves — he was a famous professional wrestler — and she would even yell at the television screen as she watched him perform.
Why Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is Important
It’s all about much-deserved recognition
And not just for an important civil rights icon — her cause gets a brighter spotlight too.
Her work makes a difference even today
She fought against discrimination and used her words to make a difference. Her actions were crucial then and are still relevant today.
Her fight inspires ours
She inspires us to stand up for what we believe in and to never give up.
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day dates