Alaska: Anchorage celebrates Bettye Davis’s legacy for women, Black Alaskans and education

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Alaska State Senator Bettye Davis speaks with a reporter Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Michael Dinneen/AP Photo)
Former Alaska lawmaker Bettye Davis retired from the Anchorage School Board (southern Alaska) at the end of September after more than 35 years in public service. In her tenure on the board and in the Alaska Legislature, Davis fought for education reform and helped break barriers for Black Alaskans and women in government.

The school board invited the community to a celebration commemorating her career, and while school board meetings are generally filled with educators and parents waiting to testify before the board about a myriad of issues, the room was filled with the sound of drumming as the Clark Middle School drumline kicked off a tribute to Davis.

After the performance, the Clark Informers, a school group dedicated to sharing history, told Davis’ story to the crowd.

Three terms on school board

Davis was elected to the Anchorage School Board in 1982. She already had a career as a social worker, before she retired in 1986. She then moved on to a second career in politics. Celeste Hodge Growden helped organize the tribute.

“We are really fortunate to have someone like Senator Davis, who actually has done more than a lot of individuals put together,” Hodge Growden said.

Davis served three different terms on the board. During her first nine-year term on the board, Davis served as treasurer, vice president and president. She advocated for pre-Kindergarten funding, reducing dropout rates, and equity for Anchorage students. During the tribute, current board president Starr Marsett credited Davis with helping get her elected.

“When we were both running at the same time, we put out a flyer that we put both our faces on,” Marsett said. “And I know that they probably voted because I was next to Bettye Davis. And so I always just appreciate her support and all the wisdom that she’s given me over the years.”

A pioneer for Black women in politics

When Davis was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1990, she became the first elected Black woman to serve in the Legislature. Blanche McSmith served as the first Black Alaskan in the Legislature, but she was appointed by Gov. Bill Egan, and wasn’t actually elected.

Davis would end up going on to become the first Black Alaskan to serve in the Alaska Senate when she was elected in 2000. Since her election, only one other Black Alaskan, David Wilson of Wasilla, has served in the state senate.

Sen. Bettye Davis, center, talks about her career in the Alaska Legislature during a panel discussion titled “Leading Women in Alaska’s Political History” as part of Alaska Legislative Centennial at Rockwell in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday, March 4, 2013. Along with Sen. Davis are Rep. Gail Phillips, left, Sen. Drue Pearce, Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski, and Katie Hurley, right. (Michael Penn/AP Photo/The Juneau Empire)

While in the Legislature, Davis’s passion for education remained at the forefront. She was given the nickname “Conscience of the Legislature” and championed legislation for education, social issues and economic development. Davis was also instrumental in reestablishing the Alaska Commission on the Status of Women, which focused on dealing with issues facing Alaska women and their families.

Stephanie Berglund is the CEO of thread, a nonprofit that focuses on providing affordable early child care to Alaska families.

“Bettye Davis was very instrumental in supporting increases to education funding,” Berglund said. “Of course, an advocate to ensure that funding wasn’t cut, and championed an effort specifically around funding for early childhood teachers and strengthening the early childhood workforce.”

Return to school board

After losing reelection in 2013, Davis returned to the school board for her third term. She served until mid-September when she resigned for medical reasons. She was too sick to attend the celebration.

The board appointed a white man – Mark Foster – to fill Davis’s seat.

Celeste Hodge Growden criticized the board directly for not choosing a diverse replacement for Davis, despite many applicants of color, calling the decision “a missed opportunity.” Hodge Growden pointed out that every member currently on the Anchorage School Board is white.

Hodge Growden feels it is important “to have some diversity on the board so that our students, which is largely minority now within the Anchorage School District, could actually identify with somebody that looks like them.”

Davis’s son attends

Davis’s son Tony Davis was at the celebration on his mother’s behalf, and echoed that sentiment. He says his mother was a role model for many students in the district.

He wouldn’t go into the specifics of his mother’s illness, but he says that his mother was aware of the trails she blazed while serving in office.

“She hopes that somebody will step up after she’s done… and continue the fight,” Tony Davis said.

At the end of the celebration, the Anchorage School Board adopted a resolution, formally commemorating Davis’s public service legacy in Alaska.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian teacher wins $1M for her work with Arctic Inuit community, Radio Canada International

Sweden: Inequality a problem in Swedish schools: UNICEF report, Radio Sweden

United States: New book tells untold story of black soldiers who built the Alaska Highway, Alaska Public Media

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Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media

Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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