By Jean Pollard
The story of the men who built the Alaska Highway might have been lost. Their stories may, simply by not including them, have been written out of history. Intentionally or accidentally, without Lael Morgan, their stories may have been allowed to be forgotten.
Lael Morgan, a historian, and journalist was asked by National Geographic to write a story about the construction of the Alcan Highway. The article was never published.
Morgan says, “I discovered a lot more about the blacks who built the Alaska Highway and that they’d been completely written out of history.”
The story she told, of the black soldiers being written out of history, was not what National Geographic wanted to publish. Unfortunately, Morgan had signed a non-compete agreement as part of her employment that prevented her from publishing the story elsewhere. However, digital media was not covered, which allowed her to be interviewed by PBS for the television special, “Building the Alaska Highway.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor changed how the road to Alaska was viewed.
Suddenly, it was tied to the safety of the nation. There were not enough men working on the highway, so they sent regiments of black soldiers. Blacks comprised about one-third of the 10,000 soldiers assigned to build the highway. They served in three segregated regiments, consistent with the U.S. Military policy at the time. These units typically were assigned to manual labor, out of the notion that they were unfit for more important jobs. The black soldiers, despite chronic lack of supplies, clothing, and equipment, and while enduring unrelenting mosquitoes, bitter cold, snow, and torrential rains proved themselves as equals, and got the job done!
In 1942, in only eight and a half months, these “colored regiments” proved their competence as construction engineers building the “First Road to Civil Rights.” Their outstanding efforts on the Alaska Highway helped lead to the desegregation of the United States Military in 1948.
The Alaska Highway Project: http://alaskahighwayproject.com/
At the website, you can find recorded oral histories from men that were there, elementary and secondary lesson plans on Alaska Highway History, and plans for developing a memorial sculpture dedicated to the Black Army Engineers.