PUBLISHED: 3:19 PM on Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Celebrating black history year-round

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Watari Boylen, second from left, explains traditions of Africa as University of Alaska Southeast student Tiffany Sweeney, left, Devon Searles, second from right, and Kordell Searles, right, model traditional clothing during Flavor of Africa held at UAS on Feb. 22.
As the end of black history month draws near, one organizer of a series of events to celebrate the achievements of African Americans wonders why all black history has to be crowded into 30 days.

"I appreciate black history month, but think our accomplishments are part of American history and shouldn't have to be relegated to one month," said Sherry Patterson, vice president of the Black Awareness Association of Juneau.

Patterson's comments echo those of actor Morgan Freeman who stirred a debate a little more than a year ago when he criticized the designation during a "60 Minutes" interview.

"You're going to relegate my history to a month? I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,'' he said.

Indeed, events organized by the Black Awareness Association show black history to be American history. It sponsored a celebration earlier this month at the Church for All Nations featuring a documentary on some of the lesser known but important responsibilities blacks have held in the nation during the last 300 years.

"It brought out different historic events and the roles African Americans played in them that I didn't know about, such as being on General Washington's staff during the American Revolution," said Daymond Geary, the church's pastor.

African Americans have been a significant part of Alaska's history.

Black seafarers started arriving in Alaska after the Civil War working in the whaling and fur industries, according to records from the Alaska Humanities Forum. Gold discoveries brought more blacks to the Last Frontier.

During World War II, more than 3,000 black engineers worked on the Alaska Highway. Black battalions were also assigned to protect the Aleutian Islands. In 2005 about 22 thousand African Americans lived in Alaska, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Born and bred in Louisiana, Patterson moved to Anchorage after high school to join her brother who was serving in the military. In 1986 she was sent to Juneau as an interim pastor for Shiloh Baptist Church.

Patterson no longer works as a pastor and Shiloh Baptist is no longer in Juneau, but Patterson stayed.

Patterson said Juneau has had its own local heroes and singles out Rosalee Walker. Walker lived in the capital city for 34 years, was an educator and three-term assembly member.

She also advocated for social causes. She's credited with helping to establish the city's bus system and to organize the first childcare center. She left Juneau in 2003 at age 74 to live near family in Baltimore.

"She was just an advocate for what was right, everybody knew her," Patterson said.

Tiffany Sweeney is a newcomer to Juneau. She moved here last year from Indianapolis to enroll in the biology program at the University of Alaska Southeast. The 18-year-old freshman quickly became involved in organizing events for Black History Month. She said she's dismayed that the cast of highlighted lives is often familiar: a Martin Luther King Jr., a George Washington Carver, a Sojourner Truth. She said it's meaningful to look to earlier history-to black America's origins in Africa.

"Year after year all they talk about is civil rights and slavery. It's like our history started with slavery, which it didn't, so I wanted to go back to Africa where our history started and talk about that," she said.

Sweeney and a few other students put together a program called Flavor of Africa held at UAS on Feb. 22.

The event, which was organized to highlight the tribes, foods, landscape and animals of South Africa, is also being held from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, at the University's Lake Room.

Black History Month traces its roots to historian Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson was the son of former slaves, who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was bothered by the fact that history books largely ignored the black American population. He started Negro History Week in 1926, a precursor to Black History Month.

At the time he said he hoped the tradition would be short-lived, made redundant when teaching of achievements of black Americans became part of general American history.

Just after a week after Black History Month comes to a close, the Black Awareness Association will hold an Evening of Entertainment on March 9 at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.

The fundraiser will include dance and vocal performances and a soul food dinner.