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Alaska's Black History: Beatrice and Robert Coleman

Beatrice and Robert Coleman, 1945

Alaska Black History Notes

Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, named for the activist who gave voice to the passing of Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945.It was one of the most comprehensive rights laws in the country at the time.

A Black couple in Fairbanks were the first to put the new law to work.

In 1946, Beatrice and Robert Coleman entered Hill’s Cocktail Lounge on Second Avenue and Lacey Street in downtown Fairbanks. The proprietor, Rudy Hill, ordered the Colemans to leave.

Alaska historian, Ross Coen, wrote that a two-year legal battle followed.

“When they were first ejected out of Hill’s bar, that's October, 1946. There's no NAACP chapter in Alaska yet. Beatrice Coleman engaged in a pretty lengthy correspondence with the New York office. It was with their assistance that she went to authorities and pressed to have Rudy Hill charged.”

The U.S. Attorney in Fairbanks filed charges against Hill. It would be the first case prosecuted under the anti-discrimination law.

Rudy Hill was fined $50 for a misdemeanor. His conviction was overturned on appeal, however, due to a technicality in the language of the law.

Or put this bite here: “Beatrice Coleman was an incredibly dedicated woman. She was not one to take no for an answer, and she was gonna push this issue as far as she could to stand up for her rights.”

Beatrice Coleman turned to the legislature. Territorial Senator Edward Anderson of Nome, in the next session, introduced a bill to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act. The 1949 amendment clarified the language that banned discrimination, and strengthened the law Elizabeth Peratrovich spoke about.

In November 1952, Beatrice Coleman helped establish the Fairbanks branch of the NAACP, the organization’s third Alaska chapter after Anchorage and Kodiak.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.