Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible blackness

Black History Month

This is the second of two articles detailing black history in Hawaii, from 1900 to the present day. Part one is here.

At the turn of the 20th century, Hawaii was a radically changing place. The whaling industry was collapsing and the plantation economy was in the process of transitioning into a tourism-based economy. The overthrow of the monarchy and Hawaii’s subsequent annexation as a US territory led to the rapid expansion of American military presence.

This context of dramatic change illuminates the complex experiences of black people in Hawaii throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Small but steady numbers of black people, mostly men, came to Hawaii throughout the 1800s. They fled racism, pursued professional opportunities, or arrived on whaling ships and opted to stay. That same shape of migration held true throughout the 20th century, with most black people coming as either part of an industry or to seek individual opportunity. But the nature of those opportunities, the types of industries and the scale of arrival changed significantly.

Camouflaged in plain sight 

Whereas the whaling industry was the primary driver of black immigration to Hawaii in the 19th century, the American military replaced it in the 20th century. Helped in part by nationalist fervor whipped up during the Spanish-American War, Hawaii became a US territory in 1898. This greenlit the American military to settle in the islands, which it did, swiftly and thoroughly. 

Pearl Harbor officially became a naval station in 1899, with additional facilities built in the ensuing years. Fort Shafter and Fort Armstrong were constructed in 1907, followed by Schofield Barracks (1908), Fort Ruger (1909), Fort DeRussy (1911), Bellows Air Force Station (1917), Marine Corps Base Hawaii (1919), Wheeler Army Airfield (1922), and Hickam Air Force Base (1938), though many of those installations have changed names over the years. 

Members of the 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” stationed during WW2.
Picture: National Archives/Army Historical Foundation.

“World War II really takes prominence in terms of our understanding and awareness of the arrival of black men,” said Dr. Nitasha Sharma, professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. “Since then the ongoing military presence means there’s been a rotation of arrival of African-American soldiers.”

Black people comprised an exceedingly small segment of Hawaii’s population throughout the 1800s, and their presence was even less noticeable since they were generally happy to blend into local life, as opposed to standing out for their skin color. But the number of black servicemen and their families who arrived throughout the 20th century substantially raised black visibility in the islands. By the end of the century there were around 30,000 black people in Hawaii, about two-thirds of which were members or dependents of the military. 

Still, that means there were about 10,000 black people here who were civilians and/or local.

“Black folks have been largely affiliated with the military. That is accurate in terms of numbers and patterns, but it’s also incomplete. There are many civilians who are in a range of other jobs. And part of those folks include Hawaii-born black folks,” said Dr. Sharma.

Black people didn’t just reside passively in Hawaii, either. They made significant and lasting contributions to local life and culture, continuing the legacy of black excellence in education and politics.

An alternative black experience

One of the reasons black history in Hawaii has gone relatively unnoticed is because they were largely disconnected from the plantation economy. As a result, there weren’t large groups arriving in waves in the same way Chinese, Japanese or Filipino people did.

“In the first few years of the 1900s plantation owners on Spreckelsville on Maui brought a number of black families from Alabama,” Dr. Sharma said. “Only about 100 people came. There was a lot of debate about whether folks wanted to bring blacks over as plantation workers. People didn’t want another form of slavery. They really posed a different kind of question for plantation owners at that time.”

Instead, black civilians came to Hawaii for the same reasons they did a century prior: to escape racist institutions on the American continent, and to pursue professional opportunities. 

“They came as educators, they came as lawyers. They came because they heard something about Hawaii as offering an alternative.”

Helene Hale exemplified this. Born in Minnesota, she was teaching in California when she heard a poem from Don Blanding about life in Kona. 

Helene Hale on the cover of Ebony Magazine, featured as “Hawaii’s Top Woman Politician.”

“Helene Hale had heard about the promise of Hawaii through a poem, and that really drew her to the islands. She ended up becoming an important political figure on the Big Island. She served three terms in the state legislature, and she ran for mayor of Hawaii County. She went on to beat the republican incumbent and became the oldest person elected in that capacity. She became the first woman and first African-American to become mayor across the islands. In 1963, she was on the cover of Ebony Magazine, a national magazine with African-American readership. They wrote a feature on her as one of Hawaii’s top women politicians.”

There was also Carlotta Stewart, daughter of T. McCants Stewart, the lawyer who helped Hawaiians regain their kuleana lands. After graduating from Oahu College — now known as Punahou — she became the principal of Koʻolau Elementary School. She married a Chinese man named Yun Tim Lai and took his last name.

“She was the first black principal in Honolulu,” Dr. Sharma said. “She helped Hawaii’s educational system, and in that way she parallels Betsey Stockton.”

Carlotta Lai. Courtesy: Howard University

Then there is Alice Ball, the first woman and first African-American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. While doing chemical research at UH, she developed the “Ball Method,” the most effective method of treatment for leprosy at the time.

These examples and more, said Dr. Sharma, “really highlight the opportunities that Hawaiians and other people in the islands made available to black people, because they didn’t denigrate African-descended people in the same way that had historically structured the rest of the United States. That’s the part that gets left out about why you have black folks coming independently, in a trickle but consistently as civilians. They hear that Hawaii over the last 200 years has really offered an alternative to what was happening on the continental US.”

Alice Ball

Higher education became another draw.

“Across this time you have the University of Hawaii recruiting athletes for football, basketball and volleyball. You have the arrival of doctors and exchange students. Obama‘s father from Kenya was the first foreign exchange student from the continent of Africa to the University of Hawaii.”

Without question, no one made black life in Hawaii more visible than the 44th president of the United States.

The Obama Effect

It is ironic that even though much of black history in Hawaii is eclipsed by the monolithic military presence, the most well-known black person from Hawaii is a civilian. Even more ironic, he became the Commander in Chief. 

“Obama raised the profile of the possibility of black life in the pacific,” said Dr. Sharma. “One guy I interviewed called it ‘The Obama Effect.’ There are more black residents who are just around, way more than we ever saw growing up.”

President Barack Obama throws a shaka at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) 18th annual gala dinner in Washington May 8, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Barack Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961 and returned to live with his grandparents when he was 10 years old. Growing up with a white family in a multi-cultural society made Obama unique as a presidential candidate, but such conditions are fairly normal for local black people.

“Obama is in some ways very representative of the black local experience,” said Dr. Sharma. “He’s born in Hawaii, he’s mixed race, he has parents of two different backgrounds, and he’s raised by his mother and his mother’s family. He’s raised with a sense of ambivalence toward his racial identity, he forms these multi-racial peer groups and he has a sense of optimism. These are very much representative of all the local black folks who I’ve interviewed. They were raised by non-black mothers in the islands, integrated into their mothers’ communities, and grew up as local boys and girls who don’t have a sense of the crippling nature of US systemic racism. Obama is exceptional in some ways, but in another way he really highlights what Hawaii offers people of African descent that gets echoed again and again in the stories of black locals.”

Barack Obama with his father in Hawaii circa 1971

Obama’s identity as a black man and his interactions with whites were fundamentally different from most black people of his generation living on the continent. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “The first white people he ever knew, the ones who raised him, were decent in a way that very few black people of that era experienced…That lens, born of literally relating to whites, allowed Obama to imagine that he could be the country’s first black president.” 

Navigating black identity in Hawaii

Black identity in Hawaii is complex. For much of the 20th century, there wasn’t even an official designation on the census.

“Between 1900-1950, people who we would currently consider to be black were folded into the category of ‘other.’ It shows that Hawaii didn’t obsess over categorizing blackness in the way that was so important to the continental US, and it hints at the possibility for black people to be more than what white people thought of them,” said Dr. Sharma.

For black people who move here from the continent, navigating racial identity can be perplexing.

“Locals presume black and white to be the same — both are in the military. They’re so used to operating along a black-and-white binary on the continent, but in Hawaii the primary binary is local and non-local. For some African-Americans who aren’t in the military — or even some who are — they feel a sense of hostility or critique and really find it to be strange because it’s waged against black and white men alike. These things like race and racism, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s from here and who is not — these dynamics mess with the accepted dynamic of how things work on the continental 48 states where black and white is how race is defined. It gets confusing.

“On the continental US, Asians and Latinos are considered to be foreigners when asked where they’re from, and black and white is often assumed to be native-born. In Hawaii Asian and brown folks are thought to be Hawaii-born, and people black or white are often presumed to not be locals.”

Author, TV host, transgender activist and Hawaii native Janet Mock.

Things can become even more confusing for black locals.

“They often have to perform that they’re not in the military. They know they’re always read as belonging to the military, so there’s certain things they do. They might wear dreads or wear certain clothes that signify a different identity than the clean-cut military haircut because they know they’ll be presumed to be in the military.”

Though it should go without saying, not every black person in Hawaii, local or otherwise, feels the same way about their racial identity. 

“Previous generations of people didn’t want to stand out as being African-American. They welcomed the opportunity to fade into and integrate into other communities. But more recent arrivals from black communities on the continental US miss black community, understanding within their community, hair services, particular forms of food and particular acknowledgement. They feel invisible.

“There isn’t a real celebration of being black on the islands because people don’t know what that means. Part of it is people didn’t need to assert racial pride in resistance to an onslaught of racism. On the other hand it’s been difficult for black communities to come together to assert that they are part of multicultural Hawaii, that they’re another important group that needs to be recognized.”

A refuge and a haven

Though Hawaii is not the racial utopia it is often described as, there is no doubt that Hawaii has offered not only a different way of life for black people, but a better one.

“There’s something that Hawaii offers that is very unique,” said Dr. Sharma. “What people might be running from or wanting an alternative from is the ongoing legacy in everyday structures of racism that black people have faced for 100s of years in the United States. People aren’t denigrated for their Africanness or blackness in Hawaii. People are granted more economic opportunities. African-Americans in Hawaii have the highest per capita income of black people in any state.”

Martin Luther King wearing a lei during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Photo: AP

Dr. Sharma has written several books on race in Hawaii. Her next one, forthcoming from Duke University Press, is titled Hawai‘i is my Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific. This echoes a lot of the sentiments she heard while interviewing local black people.

“People find in Hawaii a site of less pressure. The title of my book is ‘Hawaii is my Haven.’ That’s a quote from a black nurse from Mississippi. She says she doesn’t have to wake up and be black everyday. Another student said the same thing, ‘Hawaii is my sanctuary.’ A refuge, a haven, a sanctuary — they’re trying to run away from and find acceptance in a place that is not informed by a black-white binary, that is not rooted in anti-black racism. Hawaii is an indigenous place that welcomes all kinds of people, and that did not wholeheartedly accept white racist ideas about African-descended people.”

Cover of “Beyond Ethnicity: New Politics of Race in Hawaii,” co-edited by Dr. Sharma.

Beyond the greater degree of acceptance black people have found in Hawaii over time, they have also identified with the history of Hawaii, and of Native Hawaiians.

“There’s a lot of connections people make. A lot of black folks make commonality with native Hawaiians and their struggle for land.  A lot of African-American residents are very informed about Hawaiian history and they find a lot of parallels between the enslavement of black people and Jim Crow segregation and white oppression they faced, along with Hawaiian colonization.

They understand these to be twin processes that these different communities have faced.”  

And crucial to understanding the black history of Hawaii is the reality that black people and local people are not always different communities.

“There have been generations of local black people who were born and raised in the islands. It’s really important that we not give this idea that black people only come from elsewhere.”

Yes, there is black history and there is Hawaii history, and a lot of the time those are separate things. More vital and more resonant, however, are the instances — the history, the culture, the people — when they are the same.

This is the fourth installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about black history and identity in Hawaii. The previous three stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts

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