A Tlingit Native American, successfully inspired the Alaska Senate to pass the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945, which banned blatant discrimination such as “no natives allowed” signs posted in storefronts.
Elizabeth was born on July 4, 1911 in Petersburg, Alaska. She was an orphan and was adopted as a toddler by Andrew and Mary Wanamaker, a Tlingit couple, and named Elizabeth Wanamaker. Andrew was a Presbyterian minister. Elizabeth was raised in Petersburg and Ketchikan, Alaska. She attended Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, and the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington back then.
On December 15, 1931, Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich a politician.They lived in Klawock, where Roy was elected to four terms as mayor. They had three children daughter Loretta, and sons Roy, Jr. and Frank.
In 1941, while living in Juneau, the Peratroviches found more discrimination, having difficulty finding housing and seeing signs banning Native entry to public facilities. They petitioned the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, to ban the “No Natives Allowed” signs then common at public accommodations in that city and elsewhere. The Anti-Discrimination Act was defeated by the territorial legislature in 1943. As leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Peratroviches lobbied the territory’s legislators and represented their organizations in their testimony.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was the last to testify before the territorial Senate voted on the bill in 1945, and her impassioned testimony was considered decisive.
I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.
She was responding to earlier comments by territorial senator Allen Shattuck of Juneau. He had earlier asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”The Senate voted 11-5 for House Resolution 14, providing “…full and equal accommodations, facilities, and privileges to all citizens in places of public accommodations within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska; to provide penalties for violation.”The bill was signed into law by Governor Gruening, nearly 20 years before the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Acts of the territorial legislature required final approval from the U.S. Congress, which affirmed it.
Fran Ulmer, who represented Juneau in the Alaska House of Representatives (and who later became lieutenant governor of Alaska, in 1992 said the following about Peratrovich’s testimony:
“She talked about herself, her friends, her children, and the cruel treatment that consigned Alaska Natives to a second-class existence. She described to the Senate what it means to be unable to buy a house in a decent neighborhood because Natives aren’t allowed to live there. She described how children feel when they are refused entrance into movie theaters, or see signs in shop windows that read “No dogs or Natives allowed”
For what ever reasons after winning this enourmous victory, the family relocated to Antigonia, Nova Scotia, Canada, where Roy pursued an economics degree at St. Francis Xavier University. From there they moved to Denver, Colorado, where Roy studied at the University of Denver. In the 1950s, the Peratroviches moved to Oklahoma, and then back to Alaska.
Elizabeth Peratrovich died of cancer on December 1, 1958. She is buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Juneau, Alaska alongside her husband Roy.
Son Roy Peratrovich, Jr., became a noted civil engineer in Alaska. He designed the Brotherhood Bridge in Juneau, which carries the Glacier Highway over the Mendenhall River. In 1979, he co-founded the firm Peratrovich Nottingham & Drage, now known as PND Engineers. After retiring from the engineering profession, he now works as an artist based on Bainbridge Island, Washington.