How Folk Get to Alaska

Recently a white friend from Florida and I started conversing with an Icelandic man. He asked us our names, where we were from. And the guy was really confused; he asked, “Wait, so, if you’re from Florida and you’re from Alaska, then why are you the brown one?”

Political incorrectness aside, I get this question a lot. Like, every time I meet a new person a lot. Alaska’s population was only 3.3% black as of the 2010 census, so we’re somewhat of a rarity in the state. For this article, I decided to do some digging on the most common ways folk find themselves in the Last Frontier.

Preface: Growing up black in Alaska had its costs and benefits. I was surrounded by non-black people who held no reservations about using the N-word, but I also went to the third most diverse high school in the US, in a school district where 100 different languages were spoken (note: the top two most diverse high schools are also in Anchorage). Black people were never legally enslaved in AK and the state was desegregated as early as 1945, but redlining forced black people in Anchorage to live in Fairview and Mountain View until 1968. Women like Blanche McSmith and Lula Swanson become powerful Alaskans, but black people are still incarcerated at a greater rate than any other race by population, composing 10.7% of Alaskan prisoners.

And the results are in! Drumroll please...

The top four ways folk get to Alaska are:

The military. By far, the greatest number of African-Americans come to Alaska via military placements. About 8% of Alaska’s population are active duty military and 15% are veterans. There are nine bases in the state and some have populations of up to 15% black people.

The first large wave of black people came to Alaska in 1942, when President Roosevelt dispatched three African American regiments of Army Corps engineers to build our highways and create flood plans. Of the 11,000 active duty brought to Alaska, one-third were black.

Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean immigration. According to the 1870 census of Sitka, AK, three of the first six black people in Alaska were from the Caribbean. Today 17% of foreign-born Alaskans are from Central and South America. Though I can’t quantify how many Alaskan Latinos are black, I will provide this anecdotal knowledge: every black person I ever dated in AK was second-generation from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica or Mexico.

Foreign-born Africans. As of 2013, about 2,000 African-born people were living in Alaska. About 900 people emigrated from Eastern Africa alone.

In addition, Anchorage welcomes 130 refugees per year. The majority of refugees come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Sudan. In Alaska, 79% of refugees no longer require public assistance by the end of their first year in the state.

5th, 6th, 7th Generation Alaskans. Most Alaskans of color are first, second or third generation. These people generally moved to the state for the above reasons. However, black people have sought opportunity and new beginnings in Alaska ever since the end of slavery. The Gold Rush of the 1880s brought immigrants from the United States, Asia and beyond seeking economic empowerment. Fish processing and construction jobs continued to provide abundant employment opportunities for newcomers up until the 1970s, when oil and gas began to take over the job market.

My Grandma Carol and Grandpa Ray Stith moved to Alaska 57 years ago last month. They brought along my Aunt Cynthia and my Father Michael, who was only two years old at the time. My grandpa was in the Air Force and operated an air traffic control tower in Tanana, AK. Though most of my family moved away from Alaska, my dad and grandpa remained in Alaska for the rest of their lives. Rather than speak for my family, I’ll leave you with my Grandma Carol’s reflections on life in Alaska:

“57 years ago today, at a tender young age, young mother with two small ones, I moved to Alaska on October 18th, and a whole new world opened up for me, and it was an adventure for 32 years; living in Tanana at 60 below zero, ordering groceries to have brought in via airplane, once a month (careful menu planning, no store to run to if you were out of something), bear hunting, a couple dall sheep hunts, with Ray, who was almost as "green" as I was, running a trap line, fishing, camping out on sand bars in remote, wild and isolated country. What a life in that remarkable and beautiful country. My children and I still have life-long friends that we made in those early years. I cherish every memory that was made all those years ago.”

Michaela Stith