Part of an ongoing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reimer. Have a question about Anchorage’s history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the first black attorney to pass an Alaska bar, was at her Fairview office on East 15th Avenue late on a Friday afternoon. Its employees had locked the door and were in the final stages of closing for the weekend. They casually chatted and took their time while Dickerson was cooking her dinner in the kitchenette.
Suddenly, a sharp crack rang in the air, and the building began to sway. The secretary, who had recently arrived from Chicago, screamed. “We’re experiencing tremors,” said Dickerson, who has several years of experience in Anchorage. The shaking continued and the lights went out. “This lasts a long time,” Dickerson said less quietly than before. Through the window, they saw a man desperately holding his car as they bounced off the ground.
After about four and a half minutes the tremors stopped. The wooden desk was eventually relocated to its abutments. The gas has stopped, but the water is still working. The damage was minor: falling books and some broken boards. That day was March 27, 1964, and they had just lived through the Great Alaska Earthquake. She wrote in her diary that Dickerson’s most significant loss from the earthquake came in the aftershocks when her terrifying pet Husky escaped and never came back.
When you think of the Great Alaska earthquake of 1964 – or Good Friday – what comes to mind? If you’ve consumed any of the many books, reports, and documentaries on the topic, it’s likely a combination of a devastated Turnagain neighborhood, government landslide, downtown Anchorage smashing, Bootlegger Cove Clay, tsunami waves, rebuilding Valdez, lost Chenega and Jenny Chance on the radio. It remains the second largest earthquake on record by magnitude. The death toll varies, but the most comprehensive accounts say 146 people were killed in the earthquake, nine in Anchorage and others as far away as California.
The Tragedy of Through and Through the 1964 Earthquake is a watershed point in the history of Alaska and Anchorage. However, Dickerson’s safe passage through the ordeal is an untold story. Most historians have portrayed the earthquake as a unified and shared experience. The reality, as usual, is much more complicated. Blacks and other minorities were banned from living in the hardest-hit Anchorage neighborhoods, leading to mixed seismic experiences.
Anchorage housing segregation dates back to the founding of the city and the expulsion of the Alaskan natives from the land. Migrant workers from central and southeast Europe, referred to sarcastically as Bohonics, were also not allowed to settle within the borders of Al-Walid. By the 1940s, housing discrimination became a visible part of the Anchorage housing landscape, including “lonely white” classifieds and exclusive housing vows as racist in business.
Pledges are additional real estate agreements between the seller and the buyer that are codified in the act. A typical racial housing pact of the Turnagain Instrument of 1949 states: “No race or nationality other than white or Caucasian may use or occupy any dwellings on any plot of land in the aforementioned subdivision, except that this covenant does not prevent its occupation by servants The houses are of a different gender or nationality, if these servants are employed by an owner or tenant. Ethnic charters were made legally unenforceable in 1948 and illegal in 1968. However, they spread in Anchorage during the 1940’s and 1950’s due to social application by the city’s political and economic elite.
Although these covenants are no longer legal, they have not disappeared. They remain racist time bombs on actions of this era. Meg Zalitel, an association member at Anchorage, and her daughter Black, told Alaska Public Media in 2020 that she was shocked to learn that the deed of her Rogers Park home included a racial charter.
There were a few mid-century Anchorage neighborhoods where blacks and other minorities could buy or rent homes. More open communities included the Green Acres and the Nunaka Valley. Most of the blacks, however, ended up at Eastchester Flats, part of modern-day Fairview between Ingra and Orca Streets and between East 15th Avenue and Chester Creek. In 1952, the NAACP estimated that three-quarters of the area’s black population lived in apartments, up to 3,000 to 4,000 people.
Dickerson ended up with an office in Fairview not by choice but by opportunity. No one else will rent it. In her diary, she wrote, “Being black and female, I had some [difficulties]. “The brokers refused her inquiries.” They were seeing my black face, and suddenly the property I was inquiring about was mysteriously rented out. “She was the only landowner in Anchorage willing to rent her office, she did as a form of treatment.” Dickerson recalls saying, “You see, I was. Young Nazi under Hitler and I wanted to make sure I was cured – that I wasn’t really that kind of person inside – and it was a good idea to rent this office to you. “
Since the dates of the Anchorage and the 1964 earthquake generally omit minority experiences, they also generally ignore what happened in the rest of the city. Even in 1964, Anchorage spread much wider than Downtown and the few Knik-Arm neighborhoods hugging. Due to its many natural features, the Great Alaska Earthquake produced a more moderate impact on Fairview, Mountain View, Airport Heights, Russian Jack and other neighborhoods in the inland area. Dickerson later wrote, “Fortunately, our poor section of town, Fairview, has been blessed with good gravel soil.”
Joe Jackson, one of the first black real estate agents in Anchorage, had an office on East 15th Avenue near Ingra Street. He was in California at the time of the earthquake, and news coverage had led him to believe that Anchorage had been leveled. When he got back, he found his office a little moving, with some broken ceiling tiles, but other than that still standing. Weddings continued as planned at Friendship Baptist Grand Church, the first black church in Alaska located at East 13th Avenue and Ingra Street. A resident of Russian Jack said later, “The house made it well through. I mean, things came out of the cupboards but there was no real damage other than the sidewalks. Everything was cracked after that.”
These slums have become a haven for the wealthiest displaced. Wally Hickel, the future governor of Alaska, lived twice in Tornagin. After the earthquake, his family – Wali was in Japan – sought shelter at the Traveler’s Inn, now the Travel Inn, in Fairview. Jackson told the Anchorage Times in 1978, “Three children slept [my office] For three days, I still don’t know their names. “
Jet, a black nationalist magazine, picked up the dark irony of the minority experience during the Anchorage earthquake. They noted sarcastically, “Housing discrimination. … saved the brothers in Anchorage, Alaska, from the rage of the recent violent city earthquake. Negroes are systematically banned from entering private areas near the business center – the area hardest hit by the disaster.”
George Anderson, publisher of Anchorage Black, Alaska Spotlight, went even further. He described the earthquake as “Easter” in a letter to Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading black newspapers. Anderson wrote: “Negro houses were left standing, while nearby buildings were completely destroyed.” He summoned a black-owned barbershop near the city center standing up as the surrounding buildings collapsed. He also noted that “no negroes were killed or wounded.”
The impact of the Great Alaska Earthquake in Anchorage goes against historical patterns. People of color in America have long generated a disproportionate burden of natural and man-made environmental disasters, including the Mississippi River flood in 1927, the 1948 Vanport flood outside Portland, Oregon, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The late official response to Toloxac’s water crisis is a closer home example.
Of course, it wasn’t just a racial difference, it was an economic difference between residents of a largely dilapidated neighborhood like Turnagain and a largely intact neighborhood like Fairview. In her diary, Dickerson described the disaster as “the rich man’s earthquake.” “It was always known that the soil downtown was really muddy, but the rich owned land in the city center, so the city grew,” she explained. The expansion of Gambel and Engra Streets in the late 1960s created a major traffic corridor through primarily residential Fairview. This project was a direct result of post-earthquake planning and more typical of the negative environmental impacts that the socially and economically disadvantaged suffer the most.
Unfortunately for the black population, the earthquake made the “earthquake resistant” apartments, as Anderson described it, more attractive to developers. The city and state have accelerated plans for urban renewal for the area, a process marked by lies and corruption that has forced residents to relocate. By 1970, there were no apartments. Homes can withstand natural disasters, but their neighborhood cannot stand in the way of potential profits.
Dickerson, Mahala Ashley. Deferment of Justice for Sale: An Autobiography. Anchorage: Al-Acres, Inc., 1998.
Futurgell, Alice, Enrique GM Maestas, and Joan Derwin Darlington. “Race, Ethnicity, and Disasters in the United States: A Review of the Literature,” Disasters 23, no. 2 (1999): 156-73.
“He does not live in Anchorage.” The Anchorage Times, January 22, 1978, C-2.
“People talk about.” Plane, April 30, 1964, 42.
Lathe, David. The Oral and Written History of Jack’s Russian Society: Past, Present, and Future. NeighborWorks Alaska, 2017.
Schuyler, George S. “Views and Reviews.” Pittsburgh Courier, May 2, 1964, 10.
“wedding parties”. Plane, May 14, 1964, 39.
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