A seemingly non-controversial bill has sparked racial tensions in the Alaska Legislature after Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) voted against legislation to honor black soldiers who contributed to the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II.

Senate Bill 46 dedicates Oct. 25 to the thousands of African-American soldiers who helped build the road in record time, while facing inferior working conditions than those of their white counterparts.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla), a member of Eastman’s Mat-Su delegation and the only black man in the Alaska Legislature.

The delegation has generally stuck together on issues, but Eastman was alone in his opposition to the legislation — the only lawmaker in the House and Senate to vote against the bill.

“When we recognize veterans, let us recognize veterans for their service, not the color of their skin, not their particular nationality,” said Eastman before casting a “no” vote Wednesday. “We don’t recognize African-American firefighter day, and I don’t think we should.”

Eastman was also the only legislator last January to vote against the nomination of Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) as the first Alaska Native House speaker.

Wilson said he respects Eastman’s position on SB 46, but thought Eastman’s comment about “black firefighter day” went too far. Other members of the Mat-Su delegation thought so too.

“To me this isn’t the same as saying, ‘Oh, ‘black firefighters day, or this or that,’ because today is very different. But you know what, the division, the racial division was already made. The government made that racial division,” said Rep. DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer). “We should recognize mistakes that we’ve made in the past, and to ignore them would be a mistake.”

Regardless of party affiliation, other lawmakers saw the bill as a positive step.

“This is a very appropriate thing that we’re doing here, and I thank the sponsor from the other body,” said Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks).

“Everyone has to vote their conscience, and if he felt like he was doing his best to represent the people in his area, then that’s our job here,” said Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage), who cross-sponsored the bill in the House. “I was glad that those views were not shared by others.”

Eastman’s perspective was not shared by the senator who represents his same constituents, Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), or any other state senator. Eastman’s opposition didn’t keep the measure, which many say is long overdue, from moving forward.

According to Alaska Highway Heritage, nearly 3,695 African-American soldiers helped build the Alaska Highway in 1942. They were provided insufficient equipment, clothing, accommodations and given hand tools instead of machinery. Despite ill treatment, black soldiers constructed a large portion of the road in record time. 

KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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