Black History Month: Hawaii and African Americans

February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month. Hawaii has a rich culture and  African Americans have made many contributions to our islands. Because this Hawaii blog focuses on the Hawaiian Islands, we want to explore historical information about African Americans in Hawaii and how Blacks have influenced the islands.

The history of Black History Month

Black History Month was initially conceived in 1925 and was first celebrated in 1926 as Negro History Week with the efforts of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and scholar Carter G. Woodson.
February encompasses the birthdays of two important figures in Black history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. One of President Lincoln’s greatest achievements was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation to move America past slavery. Douglass is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of African Americans of the 19th century. For these reasons, Woodson chose February as the most appropriate time to highlight African American history. Although Woodson died in 1950, ASNLH continued to host Negro History Week. The annual celebration quickly became integral to African Americans. The efforts made by Woodson and ASNLH had brought Black history to more Americans each year. Fifty years after the first Negro History Week, in 1976, the ASNLH proclaimed the very first Black History Month.

Black History in Hawaii

University of Hawaii professor Miles M. Jackson, who has research black history in Hawaii since 1980, said the first Blacks came to Hawaii from the South (Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) to work on plantations on Maui and the Big Island in January 1901. Other scholars have noted that Blacks were crew members aboard Captain Cook’s ships during Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages. In the 1800s, East Coast shipboard crews consisted of about 25% African Americans in ports at cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Providence.

Plantation Owners and Labor

Plantation owners believed recruiting laborers from the South would ease the shortage of labor in the islands. However, working conditions were so bad on that many workers ended their contracts immediately and returned to the mainland. The Blacks who stayed in Hawaii blended in with the local culture and citizens, who, aside from the Whites (called “haoles”), were mostly dark-skinned Hawaiians, Latins, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders and many others. Although the African American community didn’t quite flourish in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as did racial groups like the Chinese, Japanese or Filipino, there were several notable influential Africans who lived in Hawaii.

More to come this month

We will continue to publish more stories for Black History Month in Hawaii throughout February, including stories about prominent African figures in Hawaii, stay tuned!

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