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Petersburg Courthouse to get a mural of civil rights leader

Mar 21, 2020

This is a mock up of the Elizabeth Peratrovich mural planned for the outside of the Petersburg Courthouse. Artist Janine Gibbons of Petersburg, is working with the Petersburg Arts Council on the project. (Image courtesy Petersburg Arts Council)

A mural project is underway in Petersburg that would honor local civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich on the outside of the local courthouse. The project is collaboration between the local arts council and the tribe and organizers hope it leads to recognition of other leaders in the future.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Peratrovich gave a speech to the Alaska Territorial Legislature that helped get the first anti-discrimination law in the nation passed in 1945. She was a Tlingit born in Petersburg and had grown up with segregation. A mural honoring her will be unveiled this May on the front of the Petersburg Courthouse, to the right side of the main entrance. Organizers received permission from the Alaska Supreme Court.

“Our hope is that it sparks interest in both local and Native history,” said Tracy Welch, Tribal Administrator of the Petersburg Indian Association.

The front of the building is along the path to a historic downtown alleyway where many tourists walk as well as locals.

“We’re starting to see more and more people getting involved in the native history and digging into that a little bit deeper,” Welch said.

The project has been in the works for a few years. The idea was spearheaded by local artist Janine Gibbons and local activist, Malena Marvin.

“I didn’t know for the first few years that I lived in Petersburg that Elizabeth Peratrovich was born here,” Marvin said. “And I thought how cool would it be if we had some kind of public educational project so that visitors, residents, would know that basic bit of information.”

Gibbons wanted a visual commemoration of Peratrovich so she painted a portrait of the civil rights leader and donated it to the local tribe. It now hangs inside of the tribe’s building. Gibbons is now working on the design of the mural.

She and Marvin approached the local tribe and arts council about their idea, and the organizations quickly got on board.

Welch says the size of the mural will be about 10 by eight feet. It will commemorate Peratrovich’s one dollar coin, which was minted this year on U.S. currency.

“Keeping the coin in mind, circular in design, attached to the front of the courthouse building,” Welch said. “So, it’s kind of going to be a focal point downtown.”

Welch hopes the mural will lead to commemorations for other important local leaders.

That’s something that Barbara Erickson feels strongly about too. She’s the President of the Petersburg Camp of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing that we are doing for our community,” Erickson said. “I only want to make sure that there are other elders in this community that are honored as well.”

And that’s the future goal, says Marvin. The organizers want the Peratrovich mural to be a jumping off project that will continue to commemorate other leaders in the future, like Amy Hallingstad and her secretary Helen King. Hallingstad was another civil rights activist who fought segregation in Petersburg and started the constitution and bylaws for Petersburg’s tribe.

“It kind of opens the door for these conversations that include these other names that we might not otherwise be able to bring to light,” Marvin said. “So, we love that Peratrovich not only has made all these contributions both to Alaska history and national history in terms of civil rights but that she also serves as a symbol and an open door to look at this whole movement of people who’ve been involved and who are still involved to this day.”

The organizers plan to unveil the mural during the Little Norway Festival in mid-May.

The mural project has raised about $7,000 so far with a goal of $20,000. Organizers plan to use the funds for the mural painting, a Tlingit frame, a bronze plaque, an educational website, among other things.