Civil Rights Pioneer

In 1941, Peratrovich relocated to Alaska’s capital Juneau with her husband. Even though discrimination was prevalent everywhere, they got horrified by the discrimination they encountered in Juneau during their attempt to access accommodation and public facilities. A sign on a hotel door that read: “No Natives Allowed” was the final straw for the couple which led them to initiate the campaign against discrimination in Alaska.

Elizabeth Peratrovich was an Alaskan Native civil rights leader recognized for her groundbreaking role in the passage of Alaska’s first anti-discrimination law, the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945.

Who is Elizabeth Peratrovich?

Elizabeth Peratrovich is remembered as an American civil rights activist. Her advocacy campaign for the rights of Native Alaskan began when she encountered rampant discrimination in Juneau, Alaska. She and her husband Roy subsequently petitioned the governor of the Alaskan Territory and gained his support to fight against racism and discrimination and achieve equality in Alaska. She led the anti-discrimination campaign. With her fierce advocacy efforts for several years, the Anti-Discrimination Law of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in Alaskan history, was passed on 16 February 1945. 

Early Life and Education

Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich was born on 4 July 1911 in Petersburg, Alaska. She was born to Irishman William Paddock and Edith Tagcook Paul. However, the adverse circumstances led her biological mother, Tagcook Paul, to move to Petersburg during pregnancy; her mother then gave her to the Salvation Army for adoption upon her inability to raise her. Soon, she was adopted by Sitka’s Tlingit couple Andrew Wanamaker, a lay minister, and Jean, a basket weaver. 

Peratrovich then grew up the Alaska Native way, living at a subsistence level and speaking Tlingit and English in Alaskan city Sitka. In 1921, when she was ten years old, her family moved to Klawock, the native village on Prince of Wales Island. The following year, they relocated to Ketchikan. 

In 1931, Peratrovich graduated from Ketchikan High School and graduated from Sheldon Jackson College. She then went to Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington.


In 1941, Peratrovich relocated to Alaska’s capital Juneau with her husband. Even though discrimination was prevalent everywhere, they got horrified by the discrimination they encountered in Juneau during their attempt to access accommodation and public facilities. A sign on a hotel door that read: “No Natives Allowed” was the final straw for the couple which led them to initiate the campaign against discrimination in Alaska.

Activism for Anti-Discrimination Bill

On 30 December 1941, the Peratrovich pair wrote a letter to the governor of Alaska Territory Ernest Gruening, stating, “The proprietor of Douglas Inn does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing as the white boys to lay down their lives to protect the freedom that he enjoys. Instead, he shows his appreciation by having a ‘No Natives Allowed’ on his door.”

Considering the discrimination “an outrage,” the couple continued, “We are the real Natives of Alaska by reason of our ancestors who have guarded these shores and woods for years past. We will still be here to guard our beloved country while hordes of uninterested whites will be fleeing South.”

Governor Gruening agreed with Peratroviches, and he supported the bill for civil rights. In 1943, they first attempted to introduce an Anti-Discrimination Bill through the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Still, their attempt failed with a tie vote of 8-8 in the House. 

In the two years that followed, the couple urged Native Alaskans to campaign for seats in the Legislature to protest on the road to build up public support. They put their children in the care of an orphanage for summer to devote themselves to their campaign. 

Bill on Senate

By the time the bill reached the Alaska Senate on 5 February 1945, Peratrovich was the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. The fight for the passage of the bill got backlash from many senators. During the Senate debate, Senator Allen Shattuck argued that the measure would “aggravate rather than allay” racial tensions. 

He said, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

On the other side, O.D. Cochran was one of the supporters of the bill. He cited the instances of discrimination he had experienced. Another supporter was Senator Walker, who also invited Peratrovich’s husband to put forward his views of the bill. 

When the floor was opened to public comments, Peratrovich rose from her seat and shared her compelling testimony in favor of the passage. She took the podium and said, “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.”

Having been a victim of blatant prejudice, she gave intense examples of discrimination that Native people lived with over the years, and she commented, “You as legislators, can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

She further stated, “Asking you to give me equal rights, implies that they are yours to give. Instead, I must demand that you stop trying to deny me the rights all people deserve.”

Later, Governor Gruening wrote in his autobiography that the gallery broke out in a “wild burst of applause” after Peratrovich’s speech.  

Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945

Overcoming piles of obstacles, the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in Alaskan history, was passed by 11 to 5 votes. The Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 was passed after the bill was approved on 16 February 1945 by the Alaskan Territorial Legislature. 

Governor Gruening signed the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 into law. The law ensured all Alaskans to “full and equal enjoyment” of public establishments and set a misdemeanor penalty for violators. The law was also penned to ban discriminatory signage based on race. 

Personal Life

Peratrovich met Roy Peratrovich—the son of a fisherman from the Balkans and a Tlingit woman—in Klawock at a young age. After graduating from a public high school in Ketchikan, she married Roy on 15 December 1931 in Bellingham.

Roy worked in the fishery business before becoming involved in government affairs and eventually becoming the Mayor of Klawock and the Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

The pair had three children together, Roy Peratrovich Jr., Frank Allen Peratrovich, and Loretta “Lori” Marie Montgomery. 

After battling breast cancer, Peratrovich died on 1 December 1958, at the age of 47.

Legacy and Honors

For her unleashing and historic achievements in the fight for equality, Peratrovich has had been honored and remembered even after her death.

In 1988, Alaska Legislature and Governor Steve Cooper established 16 February (the day when the historical Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 was signed) as ‘Elizabeth Peratrovich Day” in honor of her contribution in ensuring equal rights for everyone in Alaska. 

In her honor, Alaska Native Sisterhood later established the ‘Elizabeth Peratrovich Award.’ 

Her legacy continued as a park in downtown Anchorage was named Peratrovich Par in 2003.

The Alaska Native civil rights hero Peratrovich was featured in a documentary entitled For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, which premiered at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage on 22 October 2009.

A theatre in Ketchikan’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center was also named after her in 2017. 

In March 2018, Peratrovich was listed among the 2018 ‘National Women’s History Month Honorees’ by the National Women’s History Project.

On 12 February 2020, the United States Mint released a $ 1 gold coin inscribed with Elizabeth Peratrovich, commemorating her groundbreaking civil rights activism.

The same year on 4 July, local leaders unveiled a mural of her in Petersburg. On 30 December, Google Doodle released Peratrovich’s doodle on Google’s homepage in the U.S. and Canada.

Her life story has been referenced or portrayed in many books, including ‘Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich’ written by Alaskan playwright Annie Boochever and Elizabeth’s son Roy Peratrovich Jr. 

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