COURTESY ROYAL HAWAIIAN BAND ARCHIVES
In 1865, many black musicians comprised the musical group that was the precursor to the Royal Hawaiian Band.
Black heritage in Hawaii
Filmmakers highlight an overlooked aspect of the islands' history
The influence of African Americans is not an aspect of Hawaii's history that has attracted much, if any, attention. But filmmakers Edgy Lee and Don Brown intend to change that with "Exit to Paradise," a one-hour documentary they hope to complete by summer.
Those willing to explore their mixed-race genealogy for the documentary "Exit to Paradise," about the history of black Americans in Hawaii, should e-mail Don Brown at email@example.com.
Records indicate that the first black person arrived in Hawaii in 1796. As more came to the islands on whaling ships, many stayed and intermarried with local residents -- leaving generations of islanders with African-American roots they might not even know about.
"The fact that it's been overlooked is extraordinary," said Brown, who believes that highlighting black heritage in Hawaii "is long overdue."
Brown, a Harvard-educated writer, former film curator at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and producer of "Reel Stories" on OC16, moved to Hawaii in 1988 and met the Hawaii-born-and-raised Lee ("Paniolo o Hawaii: Cowboys of the Far West," "Waikiki: In the Wake of Dreams") in 2001. The idea for the documentary has been brewing for years.
COURTESY DON BROWN
Wally Amos plays Anthony Allen in "Waikiki: In the Wake of Dreams."
"It wasn't an easy time for anyone of color in the 19th century, and this was a place they were accepted," said Brown. "Hawaiians were completely colorblind; they looked at abilities and a sense of aloha."
Brown points out that blacks in Hawaii were not victims.
Instead, they got their first opportunities here, and worked for the success that followed. Anthony Allen, for instance, escaped slavery, traveled the world on a merchant ship and ended up in Hawaii in 1810. It didn't take long before he established a boarding house, bowling alley, saloon and a small hospital on what was known as the Waikiki plain.
COURTESY NEW BEDFORD WHALING MUSEUM
Many black Americans came to Hawaii on whaling ships, like these sailors in a ship's crow's nest. Many met and married local women.
Black sailors also brought musical talent. In 1836 the King's Band -- precursor to the Royal Hawaiian Band -- was comprised mostly of black and Hawaiian musicians.
Brown and Lee would like to research the genealogy of a few Hawaii families in an attempt to uncover their African-American roots. "We are not interested in making people feel uncomfortable," said Lee. Instead, they want to delve into a "missing piece of history" and raise awareness on a national level.
Despite the celebration of different ethnicities in Hawaii, "we rarely hear about black Americans," said Lee. "But that's the wonderful thing about Hawaiian history. You never know what you're going to uncover."