For better or worse, we all live in historic times. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage is every bit as protected by the Constitution as hetero marriage. The flying of Confederate battle flags at state capitols across the South–an act begun in the mid-20th century in response to the Civil Rights movement–may finally be ending. And everywhere on the Mainland, the fact that disproportionate numbers of African-American suspects get shot and killed by law enforcement (or merely put into prison) is finally making sustained headlines, grisly, often tragic headlines though they may be.
History tells us, all of us, that it’s never been easy time to be black in America. Enshrined in the very Constitution (where it would remain until after the Civil War) was the “compromise” that a black person was just three-fifths as important, as vital, as human as a white person. It would take the most murderous war in American history to end the practice of slavery (which, let no one tell you otherwise, started because the Southern states feared abolition), but weak post-war Reconstruction allowed both brutal Jim Crow discrimination and savage Ku Klux Klan death squads to terrorize African-Americans throughout the South for another century.
For blacks, these remain violent times. Nine African-Americans were recently murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white supremecist; unknown arsonists have also apparently attacked four predominently black churches.
It’s fitting that on Tuesday, June 30, about a hundred people showed up in Kepaniwai Park to watch the organization African Americans on Maui unveil a new monument that pays tribute to the historical contributions that African-Americans have made in Hawaii. It honors individuals who aren’t well known like Betsey Stockton, and others more popular like President Barack Obama.
“It’s taken 10 years of meetings to make this happen,” Dr. Ayin Adams, a historian who’s written about African-Americans in Hawaii. “Mayor Alan Arakawa has been instrumental. It’s been slow change, but there is change.”
There are, according to the most recent census, about a thousand African-Americans living in Maui County (Adams says there are probably another 300 or so that weren’t counted in the census). Though Hawaii and Maui are among the most ethnically diverse places on earth, the contributions of African-Americans in Hawaii aren’t well known.
“Many of my international students had no idea about African-Americans,” Gwyn Gorg, a former UH Maui College teacher and current president of African Americans on Maui, told me about a week before the unveiling. “Some expressed fear of African-American men, based on what they’d heard. We need to educate people about the importance of African-Americans.”
The first black man arrived in Hawaii even before the missionaries. Named “Black Jack” or “Mr. Keaka‘ele‘ele,” he was living on Oahu in 1796 when Kamehameha I conquered the island. Later, he built a stone house for Queen Ka‘ahumanu in Lahaina.
Many African-Americans arrived on Maui at the turn of the 20th century, when Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar recruited 200 or so of them to work in the sugar fields. At the time, Adams wrote, “working conditions [in Hawaii] were in many ways worse than in the South.” Their impending arrival led to much discussion in the pages of The Maui News, according to Yvonne Moore’s book Black Pioneers in Blue Hawaii. The language the paper used was, at best, incredibly ignorant and condescending.
“They should only be brought in limited numbers at first, and every plantation which uses them should also secure the services of a white man from the south who knows and understands Negroes, and leave their management largely in his hands,” the paper editorialized at the time, according to Moore. “It must also be remembered that as a class they are easily led by kind hands, and they instinctively look upon their employers as their friends… The better element of them will not come at first, but if they find it all right here, the very best class of them will come. All that is then to be feared is a stampede from the south to the Islands.”
Of course, as Moore points out, there was no stampede. And while Hawaii was certainly a great deal more multicultural and tolerant than the southern states, African-Americans still faced discrimination not meted out to other races. “Even in Hawaii,” Adams wrote of the 1940s, “the African-American soldier, sailor, marine, civilian, war worker, or nurse was expected to have their place in the back of the bus, or in special sections of restaurants.”
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Never underestimate the racial complexity of modern Hawaii. Indeed, Adams even told me that in 1947, the members of the NAACP’s chapter here were predominantly Japanese, not African-American.
In my too-brief research for this story, four names stood out. Their contributions in shaping Maui, Hawaii and the rest of the nation remain with us to this day:
Stockton is considered the first known African-American woman in Hawaii. Her time in the islands–and on Maui–was limited to just a few years, but her impact was remarkable.
In her book, Adams calls Betsey Stockton “an intelligent and dignified ex-slave of the President of Princeton University. In 1820, Stockton accompanied the family of missionary Charles Stewart–one of the earliest such missionaries to arrive in Hawaii–on the vessel Thames. She soon made her way to Lahaina, where she helped found what we’d now call a public school, where Lahainaluna High School now stands.
“She quickly learned the Hawaiian language and was one of the founders of the Lahainaluna School on Maui, probably the first school for commoners, where she spent two years as a teacher of English, Latin, History and Algebra (1823-25), before her untimely return to the East Coast due to the illness of Mrs. Stuart,” Adams wrote, who also noted that Stockton had even taught Princess Nahi‘ena‘ena how to read and write. “She is well remembered for her high moral and religious character and her helping to heal the sick while on Maui.”
By 1825, states the book African American Lives (edited by Henry Louis Gates), the presses at the school Stockton helped found had printed more than 78,000 spelling books. A year after that, 8,000 Hawaiians had gotten instruction there.
“Stockton distinguished herself in Lahaina by offering education to the common people instead of erecting schools only for the alii (chiefs, or nobility),” states African American Lives. In her book, Adams makes no attempt to conceal her deserved admiration for Stockton.
“Betsey Stockton was an uncommon woman for any age,” Adams wrote. “She started from a position subordinate many times over–slave, domestic, and black unmarried woman–but with intelligence, faith and perseverance, she soared above society’s restrictions to play influential roles in the lives of diverse groups of people; the beloved children of her family, the Hawaiians, and the children of her own race still fighting to melt the chains of bondage with the fire of education. She was exceptional in all her skills–nurse, missionary, teacher, principal, and surrogate mother–a shining example and role model for any place and time.”
William F. Crockett
Born in Virginia in 1859 (or perhaps 1860), Crockett was a prominent African-American attorney. He and his family moved to Hawaii around 1901. According to Adams’ book, Crockett began work on Maui as an attorney at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, representing the few hundred black workers at the sugar plantation in Spreckelsville. At a time when blacks throughout the U.S. were, at best, having a tough time even getting to the polls and at worst getting lynched for trying to participate in government, Crockett eventually became a district attorney for Maui, judge and member of the territorial Legislature.
Their son, Wendell F. Crockett, also worked as an attorney on Maui, as well as judge and member of the territorial Legislature. And his son, William F. Crockett, is today a prominent attorney on Maui, and still practices law in Wailuku (he was also married to Linda Lingle from 1986 to 1997, during which time she served first as Maui County Council member and later as mayor.).
William Lineas Maples
Maples was a physician. Born in Tennessee in 1869, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, Maples graduated from Howard University’s medical department in 1892, according to writer Yvonne Moore’s Black Pioneers in Blue Hawaii. Though he was a trained, practicing physician, Moore writes that during the Spanish-American War Maples served as a hospital steward as part of the all-black Third Regiment of the North Carolina Volunteers.
Like Crockett, Maples moved to Maui around 1901 to work for HC&S, which recruited him to work as a doctor for the 200 or so African-Americans at the plantation. According to Moore’s book, Maples worked for HC&S for 30 years, and even later opened a drug store in Wailuku, though Adams’ book states that his responsibilities at the HC&S hospital in Pu’unene forced him to close the store after just a few years.
Moore’s book also contains a fascinating bit of information about Maples’ brother Samuel, who was an attorney also working at HC&S. Moore’s book reprints a letter to the editor of The Maui News, dated Jan. 12, 1917 and written by S. R. Maples, whom Moore believes to be Samuel. The letter attacked the News for a viciously racist editorial titled “Filipinos and Citizenship” that had run the previous day and included the line, “But it isn’t good sense to admit an unlettered barbarian from the wilds of Africa to the privileges of American citizenship…”
To say the least, S.R. Maples was outraged. “The simple fact of being an educated gentlemen does not make one a loyal citizen; he may have other loves,” S. R. Maples wrote. “But as for the African or his descendent in America, he has proved his loyalty. Proved it at Bunker Hill where Crispus Attux was among the first of the patriots to shed his blood in the revolution. Proved it at New Orleans with Jackson, and in Lake Erie with Perry. Proved it under Grant; in Cuba, and in Mexico. In fact there has been no scene of death, hardship or danger to the Republic that he has not met whether in peace or war.”
Moore’s research shows that The Maui News immediately apologized for the slur.
Perhaps the most notable individual on this list, Ball was also certainly the most tragic. A chemist who received her master’s degree from the University of Hawaii–the first woman and first African-American to do so–she helped revolutionize medical knowledge by pioneering a new way to treat victims of Hansen’s Disease while still in her early 20s, though it would take many decades for history to recognize her efforts.
“During her laboratory research, she discovered a breakthrough for Hansen’s Disease,” Adams wrote. “The discovery brought relief to many patients who were suffering from the disease.” But “the knowledge of Alice Ball’s research remained unknown for more than 80 years, before it was coincidentally discovered during a literature search. She unfortunately did not receive recognition, or the acknowledgements and honor she was later to receive, because she died in 1916 at the young age of 24.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that the University of Hawaii posthumously awarded Ball a Regent’s Medal of Distinction.
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African Americans on Maui is a tiny nonprofit organization. But their vision is as large as the biggest ideal that helped formed America:
“The AAOMA includes and counts all races and ethnicities,” states the organization’s official mission statement. “AAOMA does not exclude any person from being a member or learning about the heritage. AAOMA shall remain all inclusive, never exclusive. Each individual shall have the right to learn, participate, and share in the rich legacy, history, culture and the arts of African Americans.”
The organization even offers tours of Maui that highlight the contributions of African-Americans–contributions which are still being made to this day.
I’ve attended many a public meeting on Wailuku community matters that included a tall African-American in a cowboy hat. That’s John Stan Rippy, a Philadelphia native who moved to Maui in 1977. According to Adams’ book, when Rippy bought Molina’s Bar in Wailuku in 1994, he became the first African-American to get a liquor license in Maui County. His wife Lorraine also holds the distinction of being the first African-American cosmetologist to open a salon on Maui, according to Adams.
Another African-American, Byrant Neal, directs the Story of Hawaii Museum, located at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center. And who could forget Martin Charles Hennessey. Born in the Bronx in 1969 and named for Martin Luther King, Jr., Hennessey is better known these days as Marty Dread, Maui’s “Reggae Ambassador” and one of the island’s most popular musicians.
Much remains to be done, of course, in the quest for true civil rights. Life is getting better, but the violence of racism remains a real problem, especially against African-Americans. But for someone like Gorg, it just means there’s more work to be done.
“I’m still an idealist,” Gorg told me. “Though I thought it would be so much better today. But when I see horrors, I know that I just have to work continuously to make things better.”
For more information, visit Africanamericansonmaui.com.
Cover design: Darris Hurst; Betsey Stockton photo: Wikimedia Commons; New African-American history monument in Kepaniwai Park: Darris Hurst