New book tells untold story of black soldiers who built the Alaska Highway

The 10,000 U.S. soldiers who built the Alaska Highway included about 3,500 African-American troops, who mainly worked from Alaska southward into Canada. (U.S. Army/University of Alaska archives)
Much of the history of the Alaska Highway up to this point has overlooked the sacrifices and mistreatment of the black men involved in its construction. Dennis and Christine McClure hope to bring these issues to light in their book ‘We Fought the Road.’

The McClures first started researching the highway when Christine found some of her father’s letters written during his military service. Lieutenant Colonel Turner Timberlake had been an officer of an all-black unit working on the highway. Dennis says that a 2013 trip up the highway to see where Christine’s father had worked sparked the idea for the book.

“As we traveled we realized that very few people knew there had been any black soldiers up here, and that bothered us,” Dennis said. “We’re two middle-class white folks, but the more we learned about this the madder we got.”

Through their research, the McClures uncovered military policies that prevented black men from performing certain jobs and even denied them leave from their posts.

During a winter when temperatures dropped to 40 below, Christine says black troops were ordered to build barracks for their white officers, while they lived in tents.

“So the Jim Crow that was evident in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida, where these soldiers came from, was very much alive while they were in the army,” Christine said.

Some of these men are still alive today. The McClures were contacted by 97 year old Leonard Larkins about his experience building the highway.

After he enlisted in the military, Larkins said he was put on a train without receiving any information about where he was going or what he would be doing. After weeks of travel, he arrived in Skagway to start work on the highway.

“And nobody ever said a word to him or even acknowledged that he and the other 3,000 men just like him even existed,” Dennis said.

However, the experiences of these men are starting to gain recognition.

At the end of May, Larkins was invited to Alaska for the 75th anniversary of the Alaska Highway at Fort Greely. At the ceremony, he was thanked by Governor Bill Walker for his service.

The McClures are on tour, promoting “We Fought the Road.’ The book will be released in October.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian government invests over $35M to preserve Indigenous languages in the North, Radio Canada International

Finland: Finland looks to put education, environment at top of Arctic agenda, Yle News

Norway: PHOTO REPORT: Tundra children return from school, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Activists say use of Finnish in Sweden is being restricted, Yle News

Russia: Population growth in military towns of Kola Peninsula, Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: ‘Every year it’s harder’: Hiring teachers gets increasingly difficult in rural Alaska, Alaska Dispatch News

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