The Intersection of Hawaiian and Black Histories


Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

February marks the observance of Hawaiian Language Month in Hawaiʻi while Black History Month is observed throughout the United States. The two observances connect in that both the Kānaka Maoli and Black communities have experienced historical injustice, loss, trauma and displacement under the laws and policies of the United States.

But more powerfully, both the Kānaka Maoli and Black communities share a history of resilience, resistance, and achievement.

Unknown to most people, the Black community has been helping to shape Hawaiʻi for over 200 years. A Black sailor, whom Kānaka Maoli called Keakaʻeleʻele, arrived in 1796. He became a royal advisor and built a brick palace (later used as a royal storehouse) for Kamehameha I in Lāhaina. Completed in 1802, the brick palace introduced Western architecture to the islands.

Around the same time, Anthony Allen, known to Hawaiians as Alani, helped establish the first Western-style resort in Waikīkī and a hospital. In the 1830s, Allen also helped to found the first Black organization, the African Relief Society.

Other notable individuals include “William the Baker” who became the official baker for Kamehameha I and founded the first restaurant and bakery in Hawaiʻi – arguably the original “King’s Bakery.” Betsy Stockton arrived in Lāhaina in 1823 as a missionary. She helped to found the first school for makaʻāinana. And the first two bandmasters of the Royal Hawaiian Band were both Black musicians: Oliver (no last name) in 1836, and George Washington Hyatt in 1845.

Later, numerous other Black sailors came to Hawaiʻi to escape enslavement in America and became successful entrepreneurs while contributing to the Hawaiian Kingdom. Blacks comprised more than 30% of whaling crews and, upon arriving in Hawaiʻi, many felt a sense of kinship or experienced a feeling of belonging in Hawaiʻi, and stayed to become part of the lāhui.

Many of the sailors who chose to stay in Hawaiʻi became Hawaiian nationals, married Kānaka Maoli women, and adopted ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. The Black community at the time also included numerous Cape Verdean sailors who settled in Hawaiʻi. They were sometimes called “Black Portuguese” within the local community and worked as laborers, masons, attorneys, and businessmen.

From the 1890s onwards, both the Kānaka Maoli and Black communities struggled against the same plantation oligarchy. Thomas McCants Stewart was a civil rights lawyer hired by Hui Kālaʻaina to help protect Hawaiian interests in the drafting of the Organic Act. He was later instrumental in crafting Oʻahu Countyʻs charter and in protecting kuleana land rights.

In 1901, African-American sugar plantation workers began to arrive in Hawaiʻi. After a year of labor abuses, these workers organized and brought national attention to the plight of plantation workers.

In 1903, Alice Ball and her family moved to Hawaiʻi from Seattle. She was just 9 years old at the time. Ball eventually became a scientist and, at the age of 23, created a revolutionary treatment for Hansenʻs Disease that significantly eased the suffering of Kalaupapa residents.

Meanwhile, Nolle Smith helped to abolish poll taxes enabling more Kānaka Maoli and plantation workers to vote. As a legislator and Hawaiian language speaker, Smith promoted the use of the Hawaiian language in the 1930s.

Dr. George Marion Johnson helped to establish the Richardson School of Law and Dr. Donnis Thompson helped establish the UH Rainbow Wahine sports program. Helene Hale was elected as the first female mayor in Hawaiʻi (in Hawaiʻi County) and helped secure county support for the Merrie Monarch Festival.

From royal advisors to scholars to Mauna Kea kiaʻi, the Black diaspora, along with Kānaka Maoli with Black ancestry, continue a legacy of solidarity and trailblazing.

Photo: Carlotta Stewart Lai with students
Carlotta Stewart Lai (far right) was the first Black principal in Hawaiʻi. She graduated from Oʻahu College (now called Punahou) and was the daughter of Thomas McCants Stewart, the lawyer who helped many Hawaiians regain their Kuleana lands. She is pictured here with students at Hanamāʻulu School on Kauaʻi in 1933. – Photo: Moorland-Spingarm Research Center, Howard University

Readers interested in learning more about the contributions of Black people in Hawaiʻi should read They Followed the Trade Winds: African Americans in Hawaiʻi edited by Miles M. Jackson.