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Island Life

200 Years of Black History and Experience in Hawaii

Reading time: 20 Minutes

February 25th, 2021

February is Black History Month in the United States, and we wanted to honor the occasion by taking a look back at the ways in which Black people have helped shape the culture and character of Hawaii for centuries—and the ways in which the Islands' Black community continues to be instrumental in making Hawaii what it is today.

Because of course to recount the history of Black people in the Islands is to recount the history of Hawaii itself. Though the stories of settlers who arrived from Southeast Asia, the American West and throughout the Pacific are more commonly known, Black people also helped build and contribute to Hawaii's most vital institutions. They practiced medicine, founded schools, pastored churches, owned land and advised Hawaiian royalty for more than 200 years. They were prominent members of the business community, operating many of the different establishments in the city of Honolulu at the time. They also helped perpetuate Hawaii's arts and culture, as well.

To put it simply, Hawaii would not be what it is today without the efforts of Black people within our community. It's important to celebrate this fact, as it is to take time to come together, learn from one another and nurture a dialog of inclusivity. Here's to honoring a diversity of experiences, perspectives and accomplishments, and encouraging support and kindness for everyone.

200 Years of Influence and Counting

The earliest recorded Black person in Hawaii was a man called Mr. Keakaeleele, or “Black Jack," who was already living in Waikiki when Kamehameha I defeated Oahu's then-ruler Kalanikupule to gain control of the island in 1795. A maritime trader and skilled deckhand, Mr. Keakaeleele later helped build a red stone house for Queen Kaahumanu in Lahaina.

Native Hawaiians during this time were no strangers to individuals with darker complexions; according to poet, professor and Hawaii historian Dr. Kathryn Waddell Takara, the color black was associated with power, and darker skin was a marker for dignity, strength and courage.

The next significant development in Black history in the Islands was sparked by a single meeting. In September 1819—roughly six months before the first Christian missionaries from New England would arrive in Hawaii—two American whaling ships, the Balaena and the Equator, pulled into port at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. King Liloliho, who sailed from his home in nearby Kawaihae aboard his favorite double-hulled canoe with a translator and more than 20 paddlers, was eager to meet the arriving ships and learn about catching a kohola, or whale.

This 1819 meeting launched the Kingdom of Hawaii's roughly 50-year era of whaling, which would replace sandalwood and fur trading as the leading industry in the Islands (though sugarcane would ultimately take over after the discovery of petroleum oil in Pennsylvania by 1859).

It also marked an even more critical milestone in Hawaii's history: The largest arrival of the first Black people in the Islands. Well before the influx of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino and Korean laborers contracted to work on Hawaii's sugar plantations beginning in the 1850s, Black people already represented nearly 25 percent of foreign settlers by the early 1800s.

In the decades after Liholiho's first meeting, countless number of whaling ships began arriving in the Islands from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City and as far away as Tierra del Fuego in South America and the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. Of the thousands of crewmen, many were of African descent. These Black crew members were skilled sailors, navigators and harpoonists who were often able to move into positions of leadership aboard ships, becoming pilots or captains.

Takara says that as many as half the whalers docked in Hawaii at any given time may have been African American. “Available resources suggest that, in sharp contrast to the prevalent racism and system of slavery found in much of the American continent of the time, initially early Black immigrants from the African diaspora were warmly welcomed in the Islands and found Hawaii to be a place where they might work with dignity," writes Takara in a 2004 essay, “The African Diaspora in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii." “History suggests that the aloha of the Hawaiians, that spirit of sharing by the sacred breath, meant that all people were generally respected."

A New Era

By 1833, Black people were so numerous in Honolulu that they created community organizations and held rallies for benevolent societies, such as the African Relief Society, to assist Black seamen who might fall ill or become injured because there were no unions to protect them. Many later sought opportunities on land; prominent local Black businessmen include Joseph “Joe Dollar" Bedford, who owned and operated a boarding house for nearly 20 years beginning in 1826, and “William the Baker," who owned a popular restaurant that he eventually sold in 1834. The first edition of the Sandwich Island Gazette and Journal of Commerce released in July 1836 identifies William Johnson, a Black man, as owner of the “Shrine of Adonis" barbershop, where people of all races could receive a haircut.

Not only were Black residents well established in the business community, they also practiced medicine. Perhaps the most widely known Black doctor (and entrepreneur and farmer and rancher) in Hawaii in the 19th century was Anthony D. Allen, whose accomplishments were recorded in a variety of missionary journals and newspaper articles. Formerly enslaved, Allen acquired medical knowledge and training while growing up in Schenectady, New York. He became a free man in 1800 and spent 10 years at sea before settling in the Islands, where his broad range of interests and talents contributed enormously to a growing Honolulu.

Allen founded a hospital to treat mariners and operated a burial ground for those unable to recover. He also built and oversaw construction of one of the first carriage roads in Honolulu leading to Manoa, on what historians believe to be modern-day Punahou Street. From his six acre property (today the site of Washington Middle School), Allen and his family hosted guests, including missionaries and Kamehameha III, and operated a boarding house, bowling alley, tavern, farm, ranch and school. “He is very friendly to us, and to the objects of our mission," noted Hiram Bingham, leader of the first group of missionaries in Hawaii. “[Allen] subscribed 15 dollars to the orphan school fund; and offers to build a school house at his own expense, if we will have a school near his residence…."

A number of Black settlers during the 19th century were highly educated and shared their legal or teaching abilities with the local community. Betsey Stockton, the first Black woman in Hawaii, was a formerly enslaved person originally from New Jersey who arrived in the Islands with the second group of Christian missionaries in 1823. While most missionaries were preoccupied with the education of their own families and those of the chiefs, Stockton was interested in establishing a school for the education of the Hawaiian people. She quickly learned the Hawaiian language and taught English, Latin, History and Algebra, as well as trades, including weaving and sewing. Stockton's school was located on Maui, on what is today the site of Lahainaluna High School.

Carlotta Stewart Lai, a 1902 graduate of Punahou School, was a Black woman who became an educator and school principal in Hawaii. Her father, Thomas McCants Stewart, was an attorney from New York and a member of Kalakaua's cabinet. In 1898, he drafted an organic act that would establish the Territory of Hawaii and aided Hawaiians in regaining their lost kuleana land after the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

It was not uncommon for Black people to travel within the highest political circles in Hawaii. “Black Jo" was a sail master for one of King Kamehameha II's trading vessels and later worked with the King as an interpreter and advisor before passing away in 1828.

Hawaiian music, also, saw the distinct influence of Black musicians. Four Black men formed a royal brass band for Kamehameha III in 1834, with America Shattuck as first master and David Curtis as second master. In 1836, they were joined by a man named “Oliver," who became the bandmaster, and these Black musicians toured California that year. Another musician, George Washington Hyatt, later organized a band of six musicians in 1845 with Charles Johnson as band leader, setting the stage for a larger musical group that would become the Royal Hawaiian Band.

Changing Perceptions

During the earlier half of the 19th century, Black people were welcomed in Hawaii and generally able to seamlessly assimilate into local culture. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, public attitudes began to change. According to Takara, this is partially due to the growing perception of lighter skin tones as having higher status; as missionaries and plantation owners began marrying into Hawaiian families, subsequent generations of the ruling class had lighter skin, while many commoners remained dark.

After the American Civil War ended in 1860, groups of Southerners began arriving to the Islands. However, former enslavers were hesitant of hiring Black contract laborers. Of the 350 or so African Americans who made the trip from the American South to Hawaii by mid-1901, many gained a reputation of being troublemakers when they protested their considerably reduced wages (many received only $3 for a month's labor) compared to ample salaries ($26 a month, plus free housing and firewood) being advertised by Mainland recruiting agencies established by James B. Castle of Alexander and Baldwin. “[Black people] came here to better their conditions and, whether misrepresentations were made to them or not, the truth is that they have not found here what they expected, and at the rate of wages which the plantations pay, they cannot more than hope to merely keep soul and body together," read a June 1903 editorial in The Maui News.

A Military Association

When Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900, the American military quickly began constructing facilities on Oahu with Fort Shafter in 1907, Schofield Barracks in 1908, Bellows Air Force Station in 1917 and Marine Corps Base Hawaii in 1919, among others. This military presence led to the arrival of some 30,000 Black servicepeople, particularly during World War II.

Ironically, the arrival of Black people in such numbers did not increase their stature in Hawaii society. Just the opposite. A September 1968 article in Ebony Magazine entitled, "The Negro in Hawaii," observed, “Actually most people in Hawaii are not aware of the Negro. This is because they do not see him very often. When they do, he is usually wearing a military uniform … or he is entertaining … or preparing food … or driving a truck. For most, he exists just on the fringes of Hawaiian life."

50 years later, many of these perceptions sidelining Black residents of Hawaii still exist, says Dr. Akiemi Glenn, founder and executive director of nonprofit organization The Popolo Project. “Because of the way that Blackness is represented and how people project ideas about who we are, Black people in Hawaii are often presumed to be part of the military, even if we're residents. Or presumed to be visitors, even if we live here," she says. “We hear from Black people who are born and raised here, including some who are also Native Hawaiian, that what happens a lot is we're considered to be perpetual foreigners."

Current Conversations

Since 2015, The Popolo Project has been committed to highlighting Black diversity and sharing narratives for and about Black people, as well as creating a space for conversations about race that are, in many ways, new to Hawaii. For example, reclaiming the word “popolo" itself, which had long been considered a somewhat derogatory term for Black people in Hawaii, but is actually linked to the idea that the deep purple color of popolo berries is analogous to the skin color of Black people, as described in the authoritative Hawaiian dictionary authored by Hawaii scholar Mary Kawena Pukui and linguist Samuel Hoyt Elbert.

“Just from the vantage of our small community, there are some pieces of Hawaii's unbelievably rich history that are not often told, or may not be what we collectively think about when we consider what it means to look or be local," Glenn says. “For a long time, the idea has been: Hawaii doesn't have the same race issues that [Mainland] America does because we don't have 'race' in Hawaii. But the reality in Hawaii bears out a different story."

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization aimed at improving justice systems in the United States, Black people were arrested by the Honolulu Police Department at a rate more than two times higher than white people in 2018. Black people were also subject to a disproportionate use of police force; in 2019, they made up 7.4 percent of HPD incidents involving forced interactions, despite the Black community only comprising between 2 percent and 4 percent of Hawaii's total population. In recent years, multiple local companies have been subject to discrimination lawsuits after Black employees were taunted with nooses in their workplaces.

“Around the time of the Black Lives Matter protests in America, there were events organized in Hawaii as well. But I know Black people who stayed away from those protests because they had experiences of being threatened. Someone I know had taken her 3-year-old child to Waimanalo Beach and was accosted by other local folks who told her they didn't want the Black Lives Matter movement in Hawaii. This mother was actually spat upon by a stranger," says Glenn.

“When we share these stories, non-Black people in Hawaii are usually surprised to hear that there can be this level of antagonism here," Glen says. "But, for many of us, even though we feel safer here than some other places we may have lived or experienced, there is still that potential for violence or aggression." Because of this, Glenn says she and others in the local Black community often check in with each other to see how others are doing and to make sure everyone is staying safe.

Events hosted by the Popolo Project allow the local community to connect with and learn more about the Black community in Hawaii and beyond. Recent projects include public talks about Black Lives Matter and a moviemaking camp for cis and trans girls, and non-binary youth (presented in partnership with Hawaii Women in Filmmaking and UH Manoa's Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Center). There have also been other community events, such as the Honolulu African American Film Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary during this year's Black History Month.

“When we talk about Black people in Hawaii, we're talking about multiple ethnic cultures. For example, there are those who identify as Afro-Latino, others who are Afro-Caribbean … even in the American South, where my parents are from, there are many different ethnicities that are subsumed within the racial category of 'Black,'" Glenn says. “It can become a challenge because in Hawaii, in general, we're used to people belonging to different but distinct ethnic groups. For example, someone who is Japanese or Filipino. But this can also be an opportunity to talk about our internal diversity and share our history, colonization, how we've come to be in the United States and here in Hawaii."

How to Get Involved and Learn More

It's important to learn more about Black culture in Hawaii, and to educate yourself about the issues in our community. Here are some ways you can get involved.

The Hawaii chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, created in 1961, supports the initiatives of the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States. Follow their Facebook® page for news and upcoming events.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu African American Film Festival, held each year at the Doris Duke Theatre in the Honolulu Museum of Art, is a month-long showcase of films from around the world that reinforces positive images and dispels negative stereotypes. Since 2011, it has served as a platform for both emerging and established filmmakers, screenwriters, performers and creatives to present their art. Visit the festival's Facebook page for updates on this year's upcoming event and any changes due to COVID-19.

You can connect with The Popolo Project on its websiteFacebook, or Instagram® to stay informed about future workshops and functions; previous events have included The Black Futures Ball at the Hawaii State Art Museum, honoring Black leaders and creatives; as well as public lectures, with guests such as author, journalist and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nahisi Coates and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III. Contributions made to the organization go towards educational events and future programming. The Popolo Project also maintains a #PopoloSyllabus, with suggested additional reading material.

You can learn more about preserving and perpetuating African culture in the Islands at the Obama Hawaiian Africana Museum, previously the African American Diversity Cultural Center Hawaii.

The African Americans on Maui Association promotes research, offers scholarships and sponsors a wide variety of presentations and cultural exhibitions on the Valley Isle. Click here to find out how to get involved.

Also, for those wanting to read further about Black history in Hawaii, much of the historical information for this article was sourced from the book They Followed the Trade Winds: African Americans in Hawaii, which can be purchased online from the University of Hawaii Press, or accessed as a free PDF here.

Notable Black Leaders in Hawaii History

Anthony D. Allen

In the early 19th century, Allen was a local renaissance man who founded a hospital, built a school and hosted missionaries and royalty alike. At a time Honolulu was still taking shape, Allen was leading the way, symbolically (and literally; he also coordinated the paving of new roads).

Alice Ball

In 1915, Alice Augusta Ball became the first woman and first African-American to receive a master's degree and, later, teach chemistry at what is now the University of Hawaii. At age 23, she developed most effective treatment for leprosy in the 20th century, now known as the “Ball Method."

Helene Hale

A career politician in the Islands, Hale served on the County of Hawaii Board of Supervisors from 1955 to 1963, before becoming the first female chairman and executive officer (a predecessor to the mayoral position) of Hawaii County. In 2000, at the age of 82, she began a six-year term in the Hawaii House of Representatives.

Dr. Miles M. Jackson Jr.

Professor and researcher Miles Jackson was a former Fulbright professor at the University of Tehran in Iran, recipient of a Ford Foundation Fellowship award in East and West Africa, and was a U.S. State Department specialist in Pakistan and India. He retired as dean emeritus from UH Manoa's School of Library and Information Sciences in 1995.

Dr. Kathryn Waddell Takara

Scholar, educator and poet Kathryn Takara has published numerous collections of oral histories and biographies about people of color in Hawaii and beyond. In 2010, a book of her poetry won an American Book Award. In 2016, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award as an “Agent of Change" by the Honolulu NAACP.

President Barack Hussein Obama II

Before he was an Illinois senator, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, attended Punahou School and worked part time at the Baskin-Robbins near the corner of Punahou and King Street. Like many locals, he is of mixed ethnicity—mostly Luo Kenyan and English, but also with some German, Irish and Scottish. Obama is also believed to be the twelfth-generation grandson of John Punch, who historians consider to be the first “official" enslaved person in what would become the United States.

Moses Goods

Storyteller, playwright and performer Moses Goods has more than 20 years of experience bringing narratives from Hawaii and the Pacific to stages around the world. Both Black and Native Hawaiian, Goods wrote and starred in DUKE, a one-man play chronicling the life of legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku, which Goods has performed in the Islands, New York City and at Yale University.

Dr. Akiemi Glenn

Popolo Project founder and executive director Akiemi Glenn works in Indigenous language revitalization in the Pacific through community workshops, research projects, lectures and more. She also co-founded the Hawaii Strategy Lab, a research project that combines and analyzes data and culture in the service of social justice.

Dr. Joyce Pualani Warren

Joyce Pualani Warren is an English professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa whose fields of research include Native Hawaiian literature and Native Pacific feminism. Her peer-reviewed articles, including “Reading Bodies, Writing Blackness: Anti-/Blackness and Nineteenth-Century Kanaka Maoli Literary Nationalism" and “Embodied Cosmogony: Genealogy and the Racial Production of the State in Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl's 'Hooulu Lahui," have appeared in publications, including the American Quarterly and the American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

Janet Mock

Born in Honolulu to an African-American father and a part-Portuguese, Asian and Native Hawaiian mother, Farrington High School grad Janet Mock is a writer and television producer whose work as a transgender activist has earned significant recognition, including a Maggie Award for Media Excellence in 2014 and a spot on Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2018. Her 2014 memoir Redefining Realness, which follows Mock's journey as a transgender woman from childhood to adulthood, is a New York Times bestseller.

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