Alaska and its leaders welcomed the beginning of Black History Month on Friday with a series of proclamations and events honoring African-Americans and their contributions to the state.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has already declared this February to be Black History Month 2019, but Democratic Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson — a former Anchorage Assembly member — has introduced a bill calling for every February in Alaska to officially be Black History Month.

"It is timely to officially recognize the many contributions of African-Americans to this nation and Alaska," Gray-Jackson said in a statement. "There are many important issues this Legislature is set to work through this session, but we can't forget issues that recognize our diverse communities in Alaska. Anchorage is one of the most diverse communities in the nation, so it is important to recognize all the beautiful diversity of our community."

Senate Bill 40 is the first bill freshman lawmaker Gray-Jackson has filed. She has widespread, bipartisan support, having picked up 14 co-sponsors on Friday.

Jackson says she understands legislative priorities mean addressing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and soaring crime rates, but adds bills such as hers are essential for community building.

“In the middle of everything that we are dealing with,” she said, “we can’t forget about our community in that respect and mostly the diversity that our community exhibits.”

During a Senate floor session, Jackson spoke of her mentor, the late Bettye Davis, Alaska’s first African-American state senator.

“She inspired and encouraged me,” Jackson said. “She enhanced the courage that I already had to no end. She had faith that I would do the job necessary to become a successful legislator.”

In Anchorage on Friday, local leaders including Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Assembly Chair Eric Croft met at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub to preview a series of vignettes featuring trailblazers in the local African-American community. Those vignettes — like one from the National Park Service on the black troops who built the Alaska-Canada Highway during World War II —will be aired locally all month, funded by a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Community Foundation.

Local artist Vonnie Gaither's work was displayed at the Bear Tooth event.

"I'm one of those people who wish African American or Black history month was all the time," Gaither said. "But it's the one time that people go into research and let people know about pioneers here in Alaska that have done so much for the community and for everybody."

In Anchorage, a series of free events throughout February is being hosted by Shiloh Community Development Inc. Other events include:

Every Day is a Good Day to Work Out - Feb. 9, 10:30 a.m.
Jacque Evans, Cameron Allen, Dawn Bundick and Andre Tolliver will be among hosts offering strength training, along with blood screening and door prizes, at the YMCA at 5353 Lake Otis Pkwy.

Bettye Davis African-American Summit - Feb. 16 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Clark Middle School will host the first Bettye Davis African-American Summit, named after the late state senator. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will be among the event’s speakers.

Hoops4Unity - Feb. 23, 12:30 p.m.
The third annual Hoops4Unity Basketball Tournament will be held at the Fairview Recreation Center, at 1121 E. 10th Ave. After a one-hour educational component for all youth participants, they will be able to take the court along with Berkowitz and local police.

Storytime with Kids - Feb. 24, 3 p.m.
Hear readings from a series of books by African-American authors at Barnes & Noble, at 200 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Kids will read books to adults, while teens will read to younger kids; there will also be arts and crafts.

A full schedule of Shiloh Community Development Inc.’s events can be found on its website.

Chris Klint, Dave Goldman and Steve Quinn contributed to this report.

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