Alice Ball

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Most people would not recognise this portrait. This is Alice Ball. Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington and was born in a family of prominent African-American trailblazers. Her grandfather was James P. Ball, who was a well known photographer who focused on photographing African-Americans and African-American communities. Her family was having “difficulties” (according to stories, these included run ins with the KKK) in the continental US for their outspoken views on the plight of African-Americans in the South and found themselves in Hawaiʻi. Alice Ball attended elementary and middle school in Central Grammar School (now Central Middle School) in Honolulu and studied chemistry at the University of Washington,While she was at the University of Washington she earned a bachelor’s degree science in pharmaceutical chemistry and two years later she received a second BS in pharmacy. She was one of the few women and African-American scientists of her time ever to have been published in Journal of the American Chemical Society. After graduation, she was offered several scholarships including at UC Berkeley but opted to take her MA at UH Manoa because she wanted to study tropical medicines and she wanted to return to Hawaiʻi.

During the course of her studies at UH, she began to help with the Leprosy Station in Kalihi and found out about the use of chaulmoogra or Hydnocarpus wightiana seed oil to relieve some of the pain and other side affects of Hansenʻs disease. Hydnocarpus wightiana seed oil had been used for centuries by Indian and Chinese doctors to help alleviate symptoms of Hansenʻs disease and it was introduced as a medicine in the late 19th century. Ball found the method being used in Kalihi as being not efficient and effective enough so she sought to experience with new techniques to extract the seed oil. At the age of 23, she found a new technique that was for a very short time called the “Ball Method”. A year following her find and right after her MA graduation, she went back to Seattle for family reasons where she died at the age of 24 after complications from exposure to chlorine gas.

Her MA thesis mentor and UH president, Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, stole her research and the credit. The “Ball Method” became the “Dean Method”. When tests of the “Ball Method” proved successful on 17 Hansenʻs disease patients in Kalihi, Dr. Dean never gave her any of the credit nor was she mentioned by the university for more than 50 years. Although she was the first female and the first African-American to graduate with a science degree from UH, UH never mentioned her.

In 2000, the then Lt. Governor Mazie Hirono named Feb. 29th “Alice Ball Day.”

In 2007, Alice Ball was finally recognized by UH and awarded posthumously with the UH’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction.

The story of Alice Ball remains a source of pride for many African-Americans but also a point of righteous anger because of what was done to her and how she was forgotten for decades. Even for people from Hawaiʻi. When we think of local, we naturally think of Kanaka Maoli, who have been here since time immemorial–and will always be here. But we also think of other groups. We think of Japanese-Americans. We think of Filipinos. We think of the Chinese. But we often forget that there has been African-Americans within our local community just as long as some of the other groups we think of as “local”. They, too, have added their stories to our own stories and we should strive to honor them too because they are part of who we are as people of Hawaiʻi.

We also tend to forget of the struggles of women in our community to gain the respect and acknowledge that is long over due. People like Alice Ball. If we really want to respect people like Alice Ball, we need to learn this histories. We need to recognize their contributions. We need to encourage more women to attend higher education. We need to not only close but obliferate the gender gap in pay, in job opportunities, in politics, and potential so that we can produce more women like our own Queen Liliʻuokalani, like Alice Ball, and so many others.

African and African-Americans in the Hawaiian Kingdom

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Between 1800 to 1850, more than a quarter of sailors in Hawai’i was in fact Black–mainly from the US, Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Brazil. Another one quarter was from Asia (including Japan, China, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and the Spanish Orient (now the Philippines, Guam and Micronesia). By 1833, an African Relief Society was organized in Honolulu to aide Black seamen, transplants and missionaries.

Slavery in Hawai’i was abolished early on. Kamehameha I had African-Americans at his court who were slaves that escaped. One of the most famous was a man named Keaka-‘ele’ele (Black Jack) who helped to build brick buildings for Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha. Again, due to the Eurocentric way Hawaiian history has been presented in the schools and elsewhere, we always acknowledge people like John Young but forget that Kamehameha had other foreigners at his court including African-Americans, Japanese and Chinese who have been written out. Their contributions have yet to be fully documented and acknowledged.

Kamehameha I recognized the new republics in South America and Hawai Street in Buenas Aires is named for Hawai’i being the first nation to recognize Argentina. When the Haitian Revolution broke out, Kamehameha I gave thought to send some of his arms to the slaves but was talked out of it due to the distance and the arms might be needed to conquer Kaua’i. Kamehameha I also through the cunning use of diplomacy, military arms and trade was able to ensure that Hawaiians were not blackbirded (a form of slavery) unlike sadly many of our Polynesian neighbors. That alone is one the chief reasons that unification was good for Hawaiians–a unified central government kept Europeans and Americans from enslaving Hawaiian populations unlike what the British, French, and Chileans did in Rapa Nui, Samoa, and Kiribati where entire villages were kidnapped and forced to work on plantations, mines and ranches.

Kamehameha III formally abolished slavery in all forms and declared that any slave that arrived upon Hawaiian soil was no longer a slave. It was deemed so important that it became Article 12 of the 1852 Hawaiian Constitution. Slavery was thus abolished a decade before the United States and the Hawaiian constitution guaranteed all slaves and former slaves their freedom and rights as equals.

One of the touching reminders of this period is the attached image. It is a naturalization certificate of an African-American. Moses Allen was born into slavery. His parents were slaves. He had come to Hawai’i prior to the US Civil War and some of his family also were able to escape slavery and come to far away Hawai’i. Despite the end of the US Civil War, Moses Allen decided to become a Hawaiian subject, a Hawaiian national. He lists himself not as a native or citizen of the United States but of Africa. Africa. When one thinks about it, why would he not? What type of country enslaves a population for generations and then expects them to be proud to be citizens? One of the great legacies left to us by the Hawaiian Kingdom is that belief that all peoples are equal and that slavery and colonialism were completely and utterly wrong. Moses Allen of Africa choose to became a Hawaiian citizen and that alone speaks volumes about Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians stood for.

Kinikona: A Black / Indo-Caribbean at Kamehamehaʻs Court

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One of the interesting characters from the court of Kamehameha I was a Black / Indo-Caribbean by the name of Kinikona . He identified both as Black and as a lascar according to the historian Samuel Kamakau. We know very little about Kinikonaʻs origins. His name is the Hawaiian transliteration of the Quinine or Cichona tree. Cichona was used in the treatment of malaria and we know that malaria was one of the possible sicknesses that wiped out Kamehameha Iʻs army before his invasion of Kauaʻi. Cichona is also native to South America. The man, Kinikona, arrived in Hawaiʻi between 1811 to 1813. What we know about his background is that he identified himself as being Black and as a lascar (which at the time meant he was an East Indian expert sailor) and he spoke French. We also know believe that he came from the Caribbean because of the French accounts of him which suggest he was from Haiti, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe or some other French colony in the region. Due to his mixed heritage, he was not born a slave but was still considered colored or Black, Hawaiians identified him as a haole ʻeleʻele or haole pouli meaning Black.

What made Kinikona of interest is that he was the first account of a haole (a general term used to describe all foreigners at the time period regardless of skin color) who converted to the Hawaiian religion. He made tributes to Pele and rather than being incorporated into the special system of nobility that Kamehameha I created for other haole for services to the Throne, he asked was sort of incorporated with the kahuna and he was one of the few foreigners ever to have studied the old religion in depth. Kamehameha I used his maritime skills on occasion but his more important duty was as translator for the King and Kaʻahumanu when he had to deal with the French. When the old religion was being overthrown in 1819, allegedly according to tradition, he took up arms with Kekuaokalani and Manono, the two main defenders of the old Hawaiian religion. Whether he died at Kuamoʻo or survived but died of wounds later, it is not clear from sources. What is clear is that he embraced the Hawaiian religion and died for.