Sitka’s annual slave auction came under intense scrutiny this weekend, after the NAACP chapter in Anchorage decried the name to the press. Local organizers defended the good intentions of the event. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Though clouds on Sunday (10-18-15) were expected, one event in particular cast a shadow over Sitka’s Alaska Day. The Anchorage chapter of the NAACP called attention to an evening event called the “slave auction” – condemning it as insensitive to the African American community of Alaska. Hosted by a local bar, organizers defended the auction, but agreed to change the name.

Downloadable audio.

The slave auction is an annual fundraiser, where Sitkans bid on anything from homemade pies to house cleaning. Though not an official Alaska Day event, it was listed on the program – both in print and online – and took place at the Pioneer Bar as scheduled.

Craig Warren: I have $255. Looking for $260. Sold! Amanda, you want me to auction you off?

Auctioneer and firefighter Craig Warren referred to it throughout as the Alaska Day Auction, inviting business owners to stand on the pool table while taking bids on their services. A homemade blanket with Coast Guard insignia was auctioned. This round was for a free massage.

CW: This lovely lady is a licensed massage therapist.


Though the auction was mostly for human services – from lawn mowing to house cleaning to dog grooming – some items were bid on. This included a homemade Coast Guard blanket, by festival organizer Lisa Lagenfeld. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

By the end of the night, the auction raised $3000 for the fire department. But it was the name that caught the attention of the NAACP chapter in Anchorage just a few hours before doors opened. Director Wanda Laws received a phone call from a chapter member, who saw the slave auction listed in the Alaska Day program online.

Laws was shocked. She said, “With the history that African Americans have had in this country and the idea of a person being bought and sold against their will – and glorifying that – is unacceptable.”

Around 10:30 a. m. on Sunday, her chapter issued a press release, calling the event “inflammatory and insensitive.” Laws said, “The NAACP is requesting to change the name of that event. I’m surprised they haven’t been called out on it before. But they are now.”

Bartender Rita Ledbetter created the slave auction 31 years ago, as a replacement fundraiser for the wet t-shirt contest. Though she declined to comment for this story, Mary Magnuson, who has been assisting with the auction for years , said that there is no malicious intent behind the event and that this is a case of political correctness run amok.

Magnuson said, “This controversy frankly offends me a little bit, that people who know nothing about my committee are pointing fingers and acting like we’re racist. [Slave auction] is an old term. It has nothing to do with slavery. It has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a fundraising event that high schools and fraternities have been doing for years and years.”

Laws, however, draws a line there, praising the event – and efforts by Sitkans to keep money in the community – but condemning the name. She said, “To claim that you do not see a correlation and why it would be offensive, I mean – that dog’s not going to hunt. It doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s not true.

Magnuson wishes that instead of sending out a press release the day of the event, the NAACP had approached them directly. “All it would have taken was a gentle phone call – ‘Think we might call it something else?’- rather than a call out with a rather nasty toned e-mail on the day of the event,” she said.

Laws claimed she placed a few phone calls to the Pioneer Bar and Alaska Day committee, but was unable to get through. Either way, Magnuson said that Sitka is the most tolerant community she’s ever lived in and that no one in Sitka has taken issue with the name before.

KCAW: Did you ever question the name’s appropriateness?
Magnuson: Absolutely not. I’m an upper middle aged person. I’ve been aware of the “slave auctions” as fundraisers all of my adult life. And I’ve never heard one person until now object. —

One organization in Sitka is backing the NAACP. Lawrence SpottedBird, the general manager of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, heard about the event for the first time this weekend.

SpottedBird sympathized with the NAACP, comparing the incident to the appropriation of Native Americans as athletic mascots. “To a lot of people, it’s no big deal. But to Native Americans it’s one small, additional thing that shows insensitivity,” he said. “If we just respect people and respect each other, we would use those types of phrases and terms less.”

As a former member of the Alaska Day committee, Magnuson says the name will change and it’s possible the event will not appear in future Alaska Day programs.

What she can’t guarantee is a change in how the fundraiser is referenced in the community. Magnuson said, “It will probably never appear in print again. But just the same way the dress shop still has the name from 20 years ago and we still call it the Sheffield hotel, people are still going to call it that.”

For her part, Laws is just glad the name was crossed out on paper. “There was a resolution within 24 hours and we can move on from this,” Laws said. “Learn from this and move on from this.”

If both parties are on the road to resolution, the dust is still settling. As of Monday night, representatives from the Pioneer Bar and the NAACP Chapter in Anchorage have not spoken directly.