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Life Histories of African Americans

Two African Americans walk down street.

Interviewee Ernest Golden (left) and Milton Jordan in Downtown Honolulu, 1943. During the war, Downtown Honolulu was a social hub for civilians and military alike. (Photo courtesy Ernest Golden.)

Although their residence in the Islands spans two centuries and they now number more than 25,000, African Americans in Hawai‘i have had very little of their history recorded. This paucity of information prompted the Center for Oral History in 1988 to contract the services of Kathryn Waddell Takara, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa professor and researcher in African American history.

Through her associations and friendships, Dr. Takara was able to contact ten older African Americans on O‘ahu for audiotaped interviews. She recorded life history interviews with three women and seven men, ranging in age from fifty-seven to eighty. All but one interviewee released their interviews for publication in Oral Histories of African Americans.

The interviews cover a wide range of topics. Recorded on more than twenty-four hours of tape are reminiscences and discussions of childhoods in such varied communities as Athens (Georgia), Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, including family life and parental influences.

“As a child, I experienced much love in the family, much human understanding, and much attention — not as one child, but of a family of eight. . . . The work performed during the week was primarily getting up at 5:30 in the mornings, and making the fires for Mama to cook, as well as to get a little heat in the house for the others to get by.” —William Waddell

Educational and employment opportunities for African Americans are also discussed. Discrimination and prejudice, segregation practices, “passing” for Caucasian, and violence against African Americans are topics brought up in the interviews. Interviewees talk about political activities, as well as social and cultural life within the African American community.

“And it was in the middle of the depression, 75 percent of Black males unemployed in Harlem, and here we are, dancing in these fine clothes and making thirty-five dollars a week. . . . So the people who worked at the Cotton Club were part of an elite in Harlem and were looked up to and respected because the Cotton Club was regarded as the pinnacle of show business for Blacks.” —Howard Johnson

Also detailed are World War II experiences, segregated military housing in wartime and postwar Hawai‘i, African American-local relations, and adjustment to life in Hawai‘i.

“CHA3 is Civilian Housing Area 3, and it was the housing area for the civilian workers and mostly from Pearl Harbor. . . . The two blocks closest to the ocean were set aside for the Negro. . . . The mess halls were integrated. The barbershop was segregated, the theater was integrated. . . . It was sort of a weird setup, really.” —Ernest Golden

“I’m a dancer, entertainer — I played a little music, I played a little drum, a little beat. But, being a dancer, that threw me in with the crowd, you know. . . . And, I never think about no race, anyway. In fact, the whole time, I’ve never heard none of the people I hang out with at that time call me “Black” or nothing, like popolo (Black). ” —Ulyless “Mushy” Robinson

 

Link to audioGladys Crampton discusses the development of her art (.au sound file, 182K).

 

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