Road to Remembrance: Civil Rights and Building the ALCAN Highway
Alaska Highway Project working to recognize African American soldiers who toiled on highway construction
ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Highway, or ALCAN, connects the Last Frontier to Canada, but to one organization, the Alaska Highway Project Group, the 1,387 miles represent a road into the nation's past.
The Alaska Highway Project has been working for years to get recognition for the African American soldiers who worked on the highway.
The group’s co-chairs say it's a piece of Alaska history that, up until recently, has been written out of the history books.
Jean Pollard and Bishop Dave Thomas are the co-chairs of the Alaska Highway Project. The group is working to bring recognition to the nearly 4,000 African American soldiers who helped build the ALCAN.
“He showed camaraderie in his work ethics and tenacity to forge ahead. He showed strength when at 60 below the frozen ground and the snow was his bed,” said Jean Pollard, reciting from her poetic history of the ALCAN, titled “Two Roads to Civil Rights.”
“We don't just honor the building of the highway, so that we can travel from here to Nebraska, but we honor them for opening up integration and it started here, first, in the State of Alaska.”
In February of 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the building of the highway. It was a supply route in case Japan tried to attack the United States through Alaska. The project required 11,000 troops, a third of whom were African American.
“Many of them, the reason that they joined the armed forces [was that] they thought they was getting away from segregation back home,” said Thomas. ”But many of the blacks [who] came into the United States Army, they came into the segregation.”
White soldiers worked in Canada while black soldiers worked in Alaska. They were fighting in an era ruled by Jim Crow laws – “separate, but equal.”
“There were fountains, there were restrooms, there were various places where it was obvious: here was a sign that says ‘colored only’ or ‘white only,’” Pollard said.
Black soldiers were fighting for a country that had yet to give them rights, but because of that, Pollard and Thomas said this story has bigger lessons.
“I take from this story that no matter how far down you are, or how far your back is against the wall you can still achieve and accomplish great things,” said Thomas.
When the road was complete, black and white soldiers sat down to eat their first meal together. And in 1948, President Harry Truman announced that the military would be the first integrated federal agency in the nation.
“We honor the legacy of Dr. King because he never yield to any fights,” recited Pollard. “He just peacefully marched on the road to bring about civil rights. We honor the African American army engineers because they endured the freezing cold nights and the heat of the of injustice to build the road towards civil rights.”