This year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, when civil rights activists from across the United States joined together to register black voters in the Deep South. It was a summer marred by violence and filled with hope for much of the country. But in Alaska,things were different.
Rosa Foster darts around her small kitchen making oatmeal. Formal china is on the table, family photos line the walls and shelves. The hyperactive 81 year old jumps –from story to story as she puts away the tub of margarine and box of sugar.
“So anyway, I was a good teacher, I know I was,” she says. “If you came from Mrs. Foster’s, let me tell you something, if you came from Ms. Foster’s, you’re gonna know something.”
We settle onto the couch in her crowded den, the TV constantly on in the background. She alternates between telling more stories and answering her phone as her oatmeal grows cold.
Foster moved to Anchorage from Virginia in 1961 with her husband, who was in the military, and their two young children. She says she met her neighbors, who were all welcoming.
“This lady and I, we were friendly so, much later I thought let me tell this lady I’m a teacher, just talking cause we were getting closer now. She says ‘Oh, you’re a teacher?’ I say ‘Yeah!’ She says ‘Do you want to go to work?’ I say ‘Yeah!’ She says ‘Cause if you do I’ll watch the kids for you.'”
Foster recalls the intricate details of getting her first job as a third grade teacher at Fairview Elementary. The way she tells it, she went to the school district administration and demanded exactly where she would teach and what level.
She was one of the first black teachers in the city, but she says she didn’t feel like any of the other teachers or the students treated her any differently, not like in Virginia.
Foster says when they bought a house in Airport Heights in 1963, some of her friends were a bit concerned. “This friend I met told me, ‘There’s no black folk in that neighborhood! Child, nobody livin’ up there! You guys…'”
But her friend thought the Fosters might be okay since they both had white-collar jobs. Foster says she became fast friends with her neighbors and taught them about her family’s way of doing things.
“Nece, my daughter, would be in here and I’d be pressing her hair. And this girl would be over here, saying ‘What are you doing?'” Foster recalls, laughing. “And I say ‘Pressing her hair!’ And she says ‘That the way you do it?’ ‘Yeah we do it like that.’ A lot of acculturation takes place.”
Around the same time, Cal Williams moved from Louisiana to Anchorage. He had spent most of the summer of 1964 registering voters. That fall he and two other students integrated Northeast Louisiana State College. As he was fighting to end segregation in his home state, two of his friends moved up to Alaska.
“These friends of mine were saying ‘Oh we don’t have all that up here. We’ve got white friends and we’re going to school out at the university and they love us. We’re playing basketball.’ So indeed that was a curiosity to me.”
Williams says he decided to join them and he did find a place where people of different colors were friends.
“Black people, I contend, had more intrinsic power, at that time, on a scale, I would say, than we have now. At that time, there were a number of black people who had the ability to hire other blacks.”
He says there were black-owned construction companies building for the government and black-owned clubs serving the community. But not everyone agrees that Anchorage was a relative utopia in terms of race relations. Richard Watts Jr. moved to Anchorage as a small boy in 1949.
“Discrimination was hidden in Anchorage, Alaska in the 50s and 60s, whereas if you were in the Lower 48 and the southern part of the Lower 48, it was out in front of you,” Watts says.
In 1951, the home of a black family in Rogers Park was torched. After that, Watts’ parents helped start the Anchorage NAACP. Watts says the black community was only allowed to live in certain parts of town.
No one would sell them a house in west Anchorage, so his family bought a home in the eastern part of Nunaka Valley. To shop, they drove to the Carrs Brothers on Gambell in Fairview because the store sold things like pigs feet and chitlins for cooking southern soul food.
“It was located in the heart of the black community and it was solely supported, mostly, by the black community, and yet there were no blacks employed in the store.”
So in 1963, when Watts was 16, the NAACP started a boycott. For three weeks Watts joined others picketing in front of the store. And when the boycott ended, he was hired as a bagger.
“Because you were put in that position representing the black community, you always had to put your best foot forward,” he says. “You worked 110% harder than anybody else there just to make sure they never had an excuse to dismiss you or demote you.”
Watts says it was a comfortable place to work, and he was quickly promoted. Within a few years he was a store manager, then a director of groceries. Now he’s in charge of the beverage and tobacco divisions.
But Rosa Foster says not all of the stores were as progressive as Carrs. She recalls trying to buy shoes at JC Penny’s for her children and being ignored by the sales clerk.
“She was helping another person, but she was through. But then another person came in, she went on to wait on her…”
Foster is interrupted by yet another call. “I don’t believe this,” she mutters as she hurries off to answer the ringing phone, her cold breakfast long forgotten.