Many Alaskans are familiar with the Alaska Highway, built during World War II to connect the contiguous United States to Alaska via Canada. But what many might not be aware of is that the road was built by several thousand African-American soldiers while the U.S. military was still segregated.
Jean Pollard, a UAA alumna who graduated with a degree in history, first stumbled upon this portion of Alaska history while watching a PBS documentary about the construction of the Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway, also known as the ALCAN, is 1,700 miles long, running from Delta Junction, Alaska, to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Construction on the project started in March of 1942 and took less than a year. Out of the 10,000 soldiers, about one-third were black and subjected to dangerous conditions throughout the construction process.
“They were treated like slaves,” Pollard said. “I had never even heard about this… and neither did professors and other people I started asking about it.”
Despite the disadvantages, the soldiers managed to build the military road over some of the most dangerous terrain in North America without the use of power tools.
“It was absolutely a feat of engineering,” Ian Hartman, an associate professor of history at UAA, said. “It was the largest infrastructure project on the continent going back to the Panama Canal.”
Hartman lectures about the construction of the Alaska Highway in his American history courses on World War II and the Cold War.
“To understand the desegregation of the military in 1948 and to understand the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, you really do need to go back and look at the way black troops excelled in Alaska and in Canada, and the Aleutians during World War II… It’s a corrective to our understanding of the civil rights movement,” Hartman said.
After learning about the extent of the role African-American soldiers played in building the Alaska Highway, Pollard, a retired educator, made it her mission to educate as many people as possible. She created an organization called The Alaska Highway Project in 2012, which she now chairs.
Together, Pollard and The Alaska Highway Project have made strides to educate the public by working with the Anchorage School District to get lesson plans on the history of the Alaska Highway.
In addition, The Alaska Highway Project has organized events honoring the contributions and service of all African-American engineering battalions, theater productions and other public events to give people access to the history of the Alaska Highway.
Katherine Ringsmuth, a term history professor at UAA, first met Pollard while working on a public lecture series, featuring Lael Morgan, at the Mountain View Public Library. Since then, Ringsmuth has been collaborating with Pollard in her efforts and providing assistance when she can.
“This is an American story,” Ringsmuth said.
Ringsmuth teaches about the history of the Alaska Highway in her history classes at UAA and the Eagle River Middle College Program.
On Thursday, Aug. 30, the UAA History Department will be putting on a free event in the auditorium of the Fine Arts Building called, “50th Anniversary March on Washington: I have a Dream.” The reception for the event starts at 6:30 p.m. with programming from 7-9 p.m.
To learn more about The Alaska Highway Project, you can visit their website at alaskahighwayproject.com.