Anchorage cemetery tour celebrates the contributions of past Black leaders

a man talks at a microphone
Cal Williams leads the Soul in the Cemetery tour through Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery on June 22, 2022. (Leigh Walden/Alaska Public Media)

On one of the nicest Saturdays so far this summer, about 200 people competed for space surrounding a tombstone at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. 

Their host for the afternoon: Cal Williams. 

For over two hours, Williams led the lively group on a journey through the cemetery, recounting the lives of prominent Black Alaskans who are now buried there. It was the second annual “Soul in the Cemetery” Juneteenth event — an opportunity for the community to not only celebrate Black history in Alaska and the lives of Black leaders, but also to remember elements of change that residents continue to work toward today. 

“As I visit these graves,” Williams said, “it causes me to reflect on how much more they could have given if they were still here and the great joy and wonders of what they did in the time that they were here.”

Williams is a longtime Alaska resident who personally knew many of the people highlighted on the tour. At each grave on Saturday, he introduced the individual laid to rest there to the crowd. 

The group’s first stop: the tomb of Elgin Jones, who founded the multi-cultural publication, The Anchorage Gazette. And in his later years, he worked tirelessly with Kids Kitchen, a group estimated to have served over one million free meals to local children in need. 

Williams then welcomed members of the crowd who knew Jones to recount the impact he had on Anchorage. Several people vied for the microphone. They remembered Jones as someone who deeply loved helping children and who worked through all sorts of logistical challenges to do his work in aiding them. 

“Brother Elgin…went by the rule of: If you’re gonna do it, do it right for the children,” said Rev. Wilbert Mickens of New Hope Baptist Church. 

a man
Cal Williams and Rev. Wilbert Mickens laugh together while Mickens tells a story about his late friend, Rev. William Lyons. (Leigh Walden/Alaska Public Media)

The tour continued to the graves of a variety of other notable Black leaders including Richard and Anna Watts, Helen and Toby Gamble, Johnnie L. Gay, Rebecca Kinney and Rev. William B. Lyons, Sr. Their impact within Alaska spanned many realms of life, from hairdressing to chairing the Anchorage branch of the NAACP to carpentry to serving as the president of the Licensed Practical Colored Nurses of Louisiana. 

At the grave of Helen Gamble, Robin Cole Barden introduced some of the interwoven life stories of the late Gamble and her family. 

“Helen Gamble got here by my grandfather. He drove Helen Gamble from Oakland, California,” he said. “Before it was a state, when it was a territory, it was a total different land, total different community. And they thrived here because of that. Once it became a state with federal law there were Jim Crow laws and so the African Americans in Alaska and in Anchorage had to rebuild to thrive.”

Williams said so many people don’t know that part of Alaska’s history, and that’s why this tour is so special.

“Oftentimes many people have asked: I didn’t know that there were Black people here because most of the books that we’ve seen and most of the advertisement and PR about Alaska did not include — not only Black people, but not Native people,” Williams said. “And so today we acknowledge that by our presence, we appreciate those who have called upon us to pay tribute to those who have gone before us.”

a tombestone
The grave of Rebecca Kinney, a celebrated Anchorage cosmetologist. (Leigh Walden/Alaska Public Media)

Those honored throughout the event are just a fraction of the Black Alaskans who did work to build a robust Black presence in Alaska —  work that event organizers say is ongoing.

It’s important work, said Ted Ellis, acting chair of the 400 years of African American History Commission, a federally-appointed committee established in 2019 with the goal of rediscovering the 400 years of history since Africans were first brought to English colonies in 1619. Ellis and other members of the group attended Saturday’s tour.

“It’s so critically important that we realize the legacy of those who have come before us,” he said, “that we preserve those memories and those stories, that we take that and we share that and we grow and we do better as we continue to move toward excellence.”

One of the leaders that continues this work is Williams himself. The commission recognized him during the event as one of America’s 400 African American History Keepers. Williams has lived in Alaska for decades, is a past president of the NAACP Alaska chapter and committed activist working toward Black advancement nationwide.

“It is humbling and exciting to do this work,” Williams said. “I’m so happy that Darrel Hess came up with the crazy idea of going and visiting graves in this cemetery that entombed African Americans who made significant strides in development here in Anchorage, Alaska.”

Williams and the organizers of Soul at the Cemetery say they look forward to many more events to come.

a man walks with a drum next to another person
Cal Williams carries his drum while walking with a member of the 400 Years of African American History Commission through Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. (Leigh Walden, Alaska Public Media)
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