Hawaiʻi’s Black History

The legacy of Hawaiʻi’s Black community is a rich—and often untold—story...

The legacy of Hawaiʻi’s Black community is a rich—and often untold—story

Betsey Stockton was born into slavery in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1798. She was given as a gift to the Reverend Ashbal Green, president of Princeton College. Green allowed her access to books and brought her to night classes. In 1817, when she was 19 years old, he emancipated her.

She immersed herself in theological studies. In 1822, Stockton set sail on a boat bound for Hawaiʻi. She was the first Black female missionary sent overseas and, upon arrival, likely the first Black woman in Hawaiʻi.

Betsey Stockton sailed to Hawaiʻi as a missionary in 1822.

After being sent to Lāhainā, Stockton opened a school for makaʻāinana (working people) on the site that is now Lahainaluna School. She gained acclaim as an educator and remained on Maui until 1825, when she was reassigned to teach Native American students in Canada.

Stockton’s story is unique and her life was groundbreaking, but she’s part of a rich tapestry of Black people who came to the islands beginning more than two centuries ago. 

The first documented Black person in Hawaiʻi was a man known as Mr. Keakaʻeleʻele, or Black Jack. According to historical records, he was living on Oʻahu before Kamehameha I conquered the island in 1796, and eventually served as a sailmaster, advisor, and interpreter for Kamehameha II. 

Others—including many emancipated slaves—would follow, often on whaling ships. Once in Hawaiʻi, they found their dark skin was no longer a hindrance. They met a refreshingly welcoming environment where they could be more than laborers or servants. They could be business owners, artists, educators, lawyers, politicians, and diplomats.

There was pushback. At the turn of the 20th century, the notion of bringing Black workers to the plantations was met with skepticism and hostility by some, including the editorial board of The Maui News, which wrote, “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.”

Emacipated slaves on whaling ships found a welcoming environment in Hawaiʻi. Hawaii State Archives / Lithograph by C.H. Burgess

Still, relative to other places, Black people were treated as something close to equals. They met with less bigotry and more aloha.

That’s still true today. As Dr. Nitasha Sharma, professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University told KHON, “There’s something that Hawaiʻi offers that is very unique. 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 hundreds of years in the United States. People aren’t denigrated for their Africanness or Blackness in Hawaiʻi. People are granted more economic opportunities. African Americans in Hawaiʻi have the highest per capita income of Black people in any state.”

Today, according to the most recent Census data, only 1.9 percent of Hawai‘i’s population is Black. And, certainly, racism persists. Because they represent such a small minority, many Black people in Hawaiʻi say it can be hard to express and maintain their cultural identity.

But there’s a reason Black people have been drawn here for hundreds of years. Including a man from Kenya who—though he didn’t know it at the time—would change the arc of history.

A Groundbreaking Legacy

In 1959, a Keyan named Barack Hussein Obama arrived in Honolulu and became the first African foreign student to study at the University of Hawaii. He earned a BA in economics at UH. 

More significantly, he met a young woman named Ann Dunham, and they had a child: Barack Hussein Obama Jr. 

The elder Obama didn’t stick around to raise his son and eventually died of injuries sustained in a car accident at the age of 46.

Barack Obama with his mother at the Punahou School commencement in 1979.

His son remained on Oʻahu through high school before leaving to attend Columbia and Harvard universities, working as a community organizer in Chicago, serving in the Illinois state legislature and U.S. Senate, and, finally, becoming the first Black President of the United States.

That’s the part history will remember. Obama broke the presidential color barrier. But equally important to us is that he’s a local boy, a product of the islands.

Obama has acknowledged his deep ties to Hawaiʻi on many occasions. This may be his most poignant quote.

“No place else could have provided me with the environment, the climate, in which I could not only grow but also get a sense of being loved,” he said in a 2004 speech on Oʻahu. “There is no doubt that the residue of Hawaiʻi will always stay with me, and that it is a part of my core, and that what’s best in me, and what’s best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaiʻi.”

Further reading…

“And They Came: A Brief History and Annotated Bibliography of Blacks in Hawaiʻi” by Miles M. Jackson 

“African African Americans in Hawaii: A Search for Identity” by Ayin Adams

Oral Histories of African Americans, transcribed by Kathryn Takara; available upon request from the University of Hawaiʻi at Monoa

“African Americans in Hawaii” by Molentia D. Guttman and Ernest Gold

Why MLK Wore a Lei at Selma

In 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King led the iconic Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery. It was a watershed moment in the battle for racial equality.

What people don’t always notice is that Dr. King and many of his fellow marchers wore Hawaiian lei.

Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders wore lei as they marched in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

It began with a meeting between Dr. King and the Reverend Abraham Akaka (older brother of future U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka). The pair hit it off, and the garlands were delivered just prior to the march. Dr. King apparently saw them as a symbol of strength and fragility, and felt an inherent connection between the struggle for racial justice and the battle Native Hawaiians were waging for acknowledgment and equal treatment.

In 1959, Dr. King sang Hawaiʻi’s praises in a speech to the state legislature:

“I come to you with a great deal of appreciation and great feeling of appreciation, I should say, for what has been accomplished in this beautiful setting and in this beautiful state of our Union. As I think of the struggle that we are engaged in in the South land, we look to you for inspiration and as a noble example, where you have already accomplished in the area of racial harmony and racial justice, what we are struggling to accomplish in other sections of the country, and you can never know what it means to those of us caught for the moment in the tragic and often dark midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, to come to a place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.”

Jacob Shafer

Sen. Schatz Spearheads E-Bike Rebate Bill

Sen. Schatz Spearheads E-Bike Rebate Bill

Good news for electric bike riders: On Tuesday, Hawai’i senior Sen. Brian Schatz introduced legislation that would offer a tax credit of up to $1,500 for e-bikes

OHA Offering $9 million in Grants

OHA Offering $9 million in Grants

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is offering more than $9 million in grants “to strengthen ʻohana (family), moʻomeheu (culture) and ʻāina (land) connections,” the agency announced