New book details racism faced by black soldiers who helped build Alaska Highway

New book details racism faced by black soldiers who helped build Alaska Highway

Edmonton Journal
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Chris Zdeb

EDMONTON – Author John Virtue admits he knew “absolutely nothing” about The Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway, which is also the title of his latest book, before he started researching the topic six years ago.

He was inspired to write the story at the suggestion of Monte Irvin, a former New York Giant and a member of the baseball Hall of Fame, who Virtue met while writing a book about the role of the Mexican League in desegregating American baseball.

Virtue had never heard about the black soldiers who worked on the highway, even though he was raised in Edmonton, the staging area for the project.

You’d think it would be hard to miss 5,000 black troops, almost half of the 11,000 American soldiers who spent 18 months working on two of the biggest construction projects of the Second World War

…The black soldiers should have been especially newsworthy, since they were the first African-American troops to be deployed outside of the U.S. mainland during the Second World War.

“The main reason why the contributions of the black soldiers was ignored during the war,” the former journalist says from his Miami Beach home, “is because of the power of congressmen from the southern states, who thought that anything that glorified the contributions of the blacks would cause problems back home. They might agitate for improvement of their conditions once the war was over and they were back home.”…

…There was immediate opposition from Brig.-Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commander in charge of the defence of Alaska, to black soldiers being sent to the far north. On receiving a letter from Brig.-Gen. Clarence L. Sturdevant, assistant of the Corps of Engineers, informing him that two black regiments would be sent to the Yukon and Alaska to help with the highway, Buckner minced no words in his reply.

“I have no objections whatever to your employing them on the roads if they are kept far enough away from the settlements and kept busy and sent home as soon as possible,” wrote Buckner, a southern aristocrat raised in rural Kentucky.

“The very high wages offered to unskilled labour here would attract a large number of them and cause them to remain and settle after the war, with the natural result that they could interbreed with the Indian and Eskimos and produce an astonishingly objectionable race of mongrels which could be a problem from now on.”…

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