Tlingit civil rights pioneer is celebrated in film

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By Mike Dunham
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 11-09

Twenty-one years ago, Alaska created a new state holiday to celebrate civil rights, Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

It was the first that many, including Jeffery Silverman, had ever heard of the Tlingit woman who, in 1945, spurred the Alaska Legislature to pass what historians cite as the first anti-discrimination law in America.

“I knew right away it would have to be a film,” said Silverman, an Alaska filmmaker who grew up in Pennsylvania. “It’s my kind of story. Justice. Speaking truth to power. A story for the whole world.”

Recently, “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska,” co-written and produced by Silverman, was screened during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. Public television stations in the Lower 48 will show it during November.

“Ending Jim Crow” had its genesis in a two-and-a-half-minute short, one of several mini-profiles of Native American leaders commissioned by Native American Public Telecommunications for PBS.

“They had Crazy Horse and Geronimo. I proposed Elizabeth Peratrovich,” Silverman said.


It went over well and he was encouraged to make a full-length documentary on the history of the battle for Alaska Native rights.

The finished movie, from Anchorage media company Blueberry Productions, has been five years in the making.

It chronicles the succession of victories in the realms of education, voting and citizenship, as well as abuses like the internment of Aleuts in World War II.

Much of this ground is covered in a previous PBS documentary, “The Land is Ours,” broadcast nationally in 1997. Like that film, “Ending Jim Crow” uses archive material and interviews. But Silverman has gone a step further by including historical re-enactments.

“I wanted to bring it to life,” he said. “I wanted viewers and younger audiences to see that these were real people.”

That meant getting costumes, props and locations to match the way things looked in the first half of the 20th century. Some thought it might be more practical to use locations in the Lower 48, but Silverman held out for keeping the shoots in Alaska.

Much has changed between then and now. In a Juneau scene, set 15 years before statehood, the camera pans the legislative building to show “Alaska State Capitol” carved in stone. The “lobby” of the humble, wooden, long-gone Dream Theater in Nome is actually the art deco foyer of Anchorage’s 4th Avenue Theatre.

“It’s a little fancier than the Dream Theater,” Silverman admitted, “but I needed something from that era.”

Other sites were expensively re-created or restored to vintage appearance, including the ballroom at Juneau’s Baranof Hotel.

Another hurdle was finding people for dozens of roles.

The cast came from Cyrano’s Playhouse in Anchorage and Perseverance Theatre in Juneau. One irony of the film is that Native actors play white roles like a poll worker who keeps a Native elder from voting and a segregationist territorial politician.

The part of Peratrovich is played by Diane Benson, a Tlingit actress with big screen experience. Silverman’s original short feature was based on Benson’s 2002 one-woman play about Peratrovich, “When My Spirit Raised Its Hands.” She’s credited as a consultant and writer on “Ending Jim Crow.”

“I started with Diane, because she had researched extensively,” Silverman said.

Her re-enactment of Peratrovich’s 1945 “Bill of Rights” speech to the Territorial Senate, which shamed the politicians into passing Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Law, is a dramatic high point.

The re-created scenes alternate with interviews of eyewitnesses, like Walter Soboleff, and historians like Rosita Worl and Terrence Cole.

The “Jim Crow” label comes from a Cole essay, Silverman said. But it’s not synonymous with the segregation statutes found in Lower 48 states following the Civil War. Racism in Alaska stemmed from custom, not law. But it was real, nonetheless.

“We had our own brand of Jim Crow,” Silverman said.

Squeezing a century of information into the one-hour format required by PBS meant that most of the material gathered in interviews was cut.

The movie illustrates the contribution of Alberta Schenck, deftly portrayed in the film by young Anchorage actress Debra Dommek.

In 1944, the 15-year-old Schenck, whose mother was Inupiat, was jailed for sitting in the “whites only” section of a Nome movie house. She has since been compared with civil rights icon Rosa Parks, though Schenck’s protest was spontaneous, not planned, and did not receive the massive press coverage received by Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.

But the effect was similar. Following Schenck’s show of determination, dozens of Natives went to the theater and sat anywhere they chose and were not arrested.

The Dream Theater incident drew the attention of territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening, who pledged to end such practices in Alaska.

By the time anyone thought to collect Schenck’s version of events, she had left town and lost contact with her family. “No one knew where she was,” Silverman said.

Filming was under way when a relative working on the film told Silverman that his aunts had heard from Schenck. Silverman scrambled to get to California, where he taped her in an assisted-living home.

“She provided a lot of details and context that were not previously known,” Silverman said. “We were really lucky there.”

Alberta Schenck Adams died on July 9 this year, in Anaheim, Calif. This film is the only known interview with her.

Another death nearly ended the project in mid-process. In 2007, award-winning Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas, who was directing and editing the film, died in Bellingham, Wash., while working on a demo.

Silverman was simultaneously mourning his longtime friend and colleague and frantic over how to proceed. Despite the fact that he’d never directed large scenes, the cast and crew urged him to take on that responsibility in addition to his other chores.

“They said, ‘You have to finish it for Phil,’ “ he said.