By Reginald Smith

Hawaii is well known to many for its famous natural beauty, hospitable people, and even for the site of one of the largest US military bases. It has had a long and interesting history from its earliest settlers from other Polynesian islands, to its united and modern-facing monarchy, its controversial annexation, and its part in the larger American story. Despite having been settled for centuries, the West only became aware of Hawai’i after the sighting and landing by British explorer James Cook in 1778. Later after a hostile confrontation with the king on his second trip, Cook and four other British marines were killed.

Given its strategic location in the Pacific, Hawaii became a frequent stop for European explorers, missionaries, adventurers, fugitives, and merchants. Among the travelers were many Blacks, often those who came with the objective of escaping slavery or those who were companions or servants to seamen or missionaries. The first known reference to a Black on the island was 1796 when a “Black Jack” or Mr. Keakaeleele was mentioned as a resident of Waikiki when the island was conquered by King Kamehameha during his campaign of unification of the islands. Later references do not come until the early 19th century, particularly after 1812. Travelers to Hawaii during this time make many references to Blacks in Hawaii in their writings. A visitor Ross Cox remarked that a Black named Anderson was the armourer for the king of Hawaii, also ran and won a race with the king’s nephew. Nothing else is known about Anderson besides the fact he held a position of authority but some scholars believe he may be the same person as Anthony Allen, an escaped slave from Upstate New York (New York would not abolish slavery until 1827). He eventually became a successful entrepreneur after arriving in Waikiki in Oahu in 1810 and served as a steward to King Kamehameha who granted him six acres of land. He owned over a dozen houses, a “house of entertainment” that sold rum to locals and sailors alike, was a blacksmith, and had a farm with over 200 goats and livestock. He had a Hawaiian wife and they had three children who eventually inherited his estate after he passed.

photo above: King Kamehameha

Betsey Stockton was likely the first Black woman in Hawaii and arrived there in 1822 on a trip with missionaries. A freed slave, she worked in a mission on the island of Maui and was able to convince the missionaries to open classes of higher learning—such as reading and mathematics—to Hawaiian children instead of just their own. She left Hawaii in 1825 and later taught in Canada and Philadelphia. Another missionary was Richard Armstrong who became pastor of the the Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu from 1840 to 1848. His son Samuel Chapman Armstrong eventually became the founder of the Hampton Institute (Hampton University).

photo: Betsey Stockton

Another great educator in Hawaii was Carlotta Steward who was born and initially raised in Brooklyn and accompanied her parents to Hawaii at age eighteen in 1902. Her parents were both great travelers with her father, a well-known lawyer, having lived in Liberia and her mother having studied in Paris. She later graduated from Oahu and became principal of a multiracial elementary school in 1909 which was an unusual feat for a Black woman at the time anywhere. She later married the local auto dealership owner Yun Tim Lai in 1916. Their marriage seems to have been a happy one, but ended tragically, however, when he died during a trip to Hong Kong. Carlotta remained close to her sister-in-law Ruth Aki Ching, however, and made her the main beneficiary in her will. A final distinguished educator was Alice A. Ball who received degrees in chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington in 1912 and 1914 respectively. She did her graduate studies at the University of Hawaii from 1914-1915 and became the first woman to graduate with a masters in chemistry and to teach at the university. Her research focused on the use of chaulmooga oil on patients with leprosy. Tragically she died at the age of 24 on a return to Washington State but is now recognized by the university as one of their most distinguished graduates for the great work she did in such a short time.

photo left: Alice A. Ball, center photo: Carlotta Steward, photo right: Doctor William Lineas Maples

There were many more whose names are now forgotten to history including sailors who were from Africa on European vessels or Portuguese Blacks from all areas of their empire. The Black community in Hawaii before World War II was never very large. In 1910, the census reflected about 700 Black residents and it seems that they did not create a coherent community. There are other famous names such as the Doctor William Lineas Maples who was recruited by the Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Company to work there in the early 1900s. The most famous resident, however, is undoubtedly the current US President Barack Obama who was born there and spent many of his formative years before moving to Indonesia.

photo: Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America

Further Reading:

Famous African-Americans in Hawaii’s History

Broussard, Albert S. “Carlotta Stewart Lai, a Black teacher in the territory of Hawai’i” Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 24, p. 129-154, 1990.

Jackson, Miles M. “They Followed the Trade Winds: African Americans in Hawaii (Social Process in Hawaii)”, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

Porter, KW “Notes on Negroes in Early Hawaii”, Journal of Negro History, Vol. 19:2 1934.

“Negro in Hawaii” Ebony, Vol. 23, No. 11 (reprinted from Beacon Magazine-Hawaii)

Photo credits: Royal palace and King Kamehameha – wikimedia, portraits of Betsey Stockton, Alice A. Ball, Carlotta Steward and Dr. William Lineas Maples –

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