After years of Hawaiian studies in grade school I absorbed more about the land owning habits of missionaries than what notable everyday individuals were doing–especially African Americans who lived here. Local historian Adesina Ogunelese shares this view.
“American schools are not getting better,” says Ogunelese. “I just read an article in Ebony yesterday that only a few states require Civil Rights history to be taught in schools; almost none in the South. We need to require that other cultures who have touched the history of the US are included in our public and private schools. However, I don’t see this happening any time soon.”
Years ago, Ogunelese moved to Maui to work for Iwalani Mottl, the daughter of a man named Nolle Smith. Later, she discovered a 1968 book in Mottl’s library titled Nolle Smith, Cowboy, Engineer, Statesman, which was written by Bobette Gugliotta. Smith had moved from Wyoming to Hawaii in 1915 to work for the Department of Public Works. The son of a white father and African American mother, he got himself elected to the Territorial Legislature in 1928 and addressed his constituents in their native language. His successes in office included removing the poll tax as a requirement for voting.
Learning about Smith peaked Ogunelese’s interest in finding more African American history in Hawaii.
“I discovered the history of African Americans in Hawaii quite by accident,” she told me. “I didn’t know when I arrived here that any history existed. After reading [Gugliotta’s] book, this sparked my interest to find other books and articles about black American contributions to Hawaii.”
Ogunelese soon discovered Betsy Stockton, a former slave who became the first unmarried American woman sent overseas as a missionary. Her destination? Lahaina. Here’s an excerpt from African-American Religion: A Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, edited by David W. Wills and Albert J. Raboteau, which analyzes her diary:
“The company disembarks and stays at the main mission settlement in Honolulu, or Honoruru as it was then spelled. She visits several times with Anthony Allen, a black settler from the Albany, New York, area, who tells her he has never in his twenty years there seen “a colored female”: his wife is a Hawaiian. After two weeks the new missionaries agree to move on to other islands, the Stewarts and Stockton heading with another couple to Lahaina on the island of Maui, a three-day sail from Honolulu, and moving into a house found for them by an American resident there. The diary concludes with the visit of the Hawaiian king to Maui and on June 29, 1823, of Stockton being asked by the queen to sit next to her, even though they could barely understand each other’s language. The next day one of the king’s sons asks her to teach him English, and Stockton immediately starts a school with ten students, English and Hawaiian.”
Stockton’s career on Maui was short; she returned to the mainland just two years later but her school for the “Makeainana, or lower class of people” was kept running by another missionary in Lahaina.
Another innovator was Alice Ball, an African American who graduated with a masters in chemistry from the University of Hawaii and helped discover an early cure for Hansen’s disease. She died at the very early age of 24, and her professor took credit for her work. It wasn’t until 2007–90 years after her death–that Ball was suitably honored with the Regent’s Medal of Distinction.
Then there’s Helene Hale, the first African American elected to office in the State of Hawaii, as well as the first woman to hold an executive position since Queen Liluokalani. She served in public office on Hawaii Island for more than a quarter century, helped found the Merrie Monarch Festival and won an election to the State House of Representatives in 2000 at the age of 84. Campaign ads for that race showed her in a bathing suit with the slogan “Recycle Helene Hale.”
African Americans make up just 2.4 percent of Hawaii’s population, which helps explain why their accomplishments are all but ignored in local history texts. This needs to stop, especially given that the most famous African American from Hawaii is our current President Barack Obama. A Honolulu native, he graduated from Punahou School.
According to Ogunelese, those wanting more information on African Americans from Hawaii should check out Ayin Adams’ book African Americans in Hawaii: A Search for Identity.