Telling Alaska’s Story: Honoring the African American soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway

Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 6:31 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Monday, Oct. 25 is Alaska Highway Day, a state holiday signed into law in 2017 by then-Gov. Bill Walker. The day commemorates the completion of the Alaska Highway on Oct. 25, 1942. But it also recognizes the people who built it, including thousands of Black soldiers.

It’s a part of Alaska’s history that, until recently, was not well known. During the heart of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the construction of a road to link the Lower 48 with what was then a U.S. territory. In the winter of 1942, 11,000 soldiers headed north, including 4,000 African American soldiers who were members of three all-Black engineering regiments.

The Black engineers worked from north to south to build the road. They were segregated from their white colleagues, who started in the south and headed north. Despite harsh conditions, inferior equipment and strict rules that kept the Black soldiers isolated, they managed to finish in record time.

On Oct. 25, 1942, eight months after they started, the soldiers from the Black 97th Engineer Regiment met up with the white troops from the 18th Engineer Regiment and, with a historic handshake, the now roughly 1,300-mile highway was completed.

Jean Pollard, chair with the Alaska Highway Project, considers the handshake between a white and Black soldier, captured in a photograph, the beginnings of integration. Pollard is one of the people who helped bring the contributions of the Black soldiers to light. It’s history, she said, she never learned in Alaskan schools.

“I never heard that,” said Pollard. “And that’s when I thought, my goodness, this is not right. And that’s when I started, you know decided, I wanted to get this put together and let people know, in Alaska, what happened. Nobody knew.”

Pollard went on a quest to find the few soldiers who were still alive. She shared her findings with Alaska legislators. In 2017, Rep. Geran Tarr and Sen. David Wilson introduced legislation to establish Alaska Highway Day and recognize the contribution of the Black soldiers.

“We wanted to recognize the significant contributions of the African American soldiers who previously hadn’t been recognized for that tremendous feat,” Tarr said.

She noted that the de-segregation of the U.S. Army and military that followed in the late 1940s has led people to call the Alaska Highway “the road to civil rights.”

“And it proved that the Alaska soldiers, these African American soldiers, had just as much talent as the other soldiers,” Tarr said. “That they should be treated equally with their counterparts. It was really the beginnings of a bigger civil rights movement in America, and we should be proud of that history. And it’s a history that every Alaskan should know.”

Pollard said, for her part, she’s happy to make sure the story of the Black soldiers isn’t forgotten, even if most have passed away.

“The majority of them, they’re all gone. They’re not here to tell their story,” she said. “So we have to keep telling it for them. That’s why we have to keep doing this.”

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