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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 8, 2004

African-American groups help nurture identity

By Miles M. Jackson

Establishing community among African Americans in Hawai'i has not been an easy task. Historically, the small population of blacks has been one that is dispersed and without cultural focus.

Performers with Sankofa, an African-American drum ensemble and dance group, celebrate black culture at the Academy of Arts.

Advertiser library photo • Feb. 27, 2000

Without an existing black residential community in Hawai'i, such as New York City's Harlem, many blacks feel an even stronger need to identify as an ethnic community, especially as many live in interracial families and have become integrated into multiracial communities. Consequently, blacks have come together to form various social and service organizations honoring black community in Hawai'i.

One of the first black community organizations, the Wai Wai Nui Club, a black women's service group, was established in the mid-1940s. In 1983, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, first established at Howard University in 1908, became the first all-black graduate chapter of a Greek-letter sorority to be established in Honolulu. Other all-black Greek-letter societies with chapters incorporated in Hawai'i include Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Zeta Phi Beta sorority, Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and Omega Psi Phi fraternity. These fraternities and sororities provide important social and professional networks for their members. Historically, blacks were not allowed to join white Greek-letter societies, which existed as an integral part of American higher education. The establishment of black fraternities and sororities allowed black students to create and enjoy the social and professional networks necessary for the successful integration of graduates into jobs for which they had been trained.

The first African-American fraternity was established at Cornell University in 1906. Many members of these fraternal societies are typically leaders in their communities, and those who belong to graduate chapters are dedicated to a lifelong commitment to community service.

In Honolulu, graduate members perform a variety of community services designed to strengthen community. Alpha Kappa Alpha, for example, grants college scholarships to Hawai'i high-school graduates. In 2002 and 2003, the sorority awarded approximately $20,000 in scholarships with money raised in the community through various projects, including an annual dinner dance.

Other activities undertaken locally by alumni chapters include mentoring young men and women of high-school age, organizing an annual diabetes alert, sponsoring economic empowerment clinics for women and feeding the homeless.

Since 1947, other ethnic groups have joined black Greek-letter organizations in academic communities at the undergraduate level. Often, these students seeking membership in black fraternities and sororities come from urban neighborhoods, middle America and even from the once-segregated South. Although whites, as an example, make up only a small percentage of the membership of campus and graduate chapters, their numbers are increasing slowly.

The local chapter of AKA has been integrated since its beginning in the 1980s. Lorna Peck, past president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, noted that the Hawai'i chapter has included both whites and Pacific Islanders as members at various times. Several young local women who attended college in California were noted as members amongst those who had joined black sororities. One white member of a graduate chapter stated that she joined the Delta Sigma Theta alumni chapter because "they were involved in women's rights, and being associated with women who are doing things is really important to me."

Founded in Philadelphia in 1946, The Links Inc. is a highly visible national African-American women's organization with more than 10,000 members in 40 states and several foreign countries.

The Hawai'i chapter was founded in the 1980s and today sponsors African-American educational and cultural programs on O'ahu. The chapter each year sponsors for youth "African Safari" in cooperation with the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The Fraternal Order of Prince Hall Masons has had a lodge sponsored by the California Grand Lodge in Hawai'i for a number of years, but on June 2, 2001, the Hawai'i lodge was dedicated as a separate Grand Lodge.

The Hawai'i Grand Lodge supports all principles of Prince Hall Masonry, including those necessary to build character, to render service to others and to improve Hawai'i's social, cultural and economic conditions. The Prince Hall Masons have a long history in the black community.

In 1775, 15 blacks were initiated in Boston as members of a British army Lodge of Freemasons, and in 1784, Prince Hall, one of the group initiated, petitioned the Grand Lodge in England to establish a black chapter of Masons in Boston. His petition was accepted, and he became the grand master of Black Masonry in the United States. Since that time, 4,500 lodges of the Prince Hall Masons have been established worldwide.

The Hawai'i branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil-rights organization, was established in 1945 as a result of a visit by Walter White, NAACP executive secretary.

After fielding complaints by blacks of discrimination at Hawai'i's various military installations, White conducted investigations that included discussions with members of the military and civilian communities. During these discussions, he persuaded leaders to organize a local chapter of the NAACP.

Since 1945, although not able to litigate, the local NAACP has had to intervene in cases involving discrimination complaints. This small chapter of the NAACP stands as a reminder in the 21st century that although blacks in Hawai'i may experience fewer problems than African Americans face on the Mainland, discrimination still exists.

It is still necessary for the NAACP to keep a watchful eye on these tropical isles.

For 20 years, a series of black newspapers have been published on a monthly basis. Hawai'i Afro Hawaiian News, now defunct, published by the Afro American Association of Hawai'i, was later replaced by Mahogany, which also publishes news about Latinos in Hawai'i.

This monthly has been published consistently for more than a decade and features articles about black culture in Hawai'i. It also provides information about individual African Americans, black organizations, the history of African Americans in Hawai'i and church news.

Until recently, "Harambee" was a monthly community access cable television program that was produced locally by 'Olelo and members of the black community.

A recent cable program produced by the Honolulu based African Cultural Center has been successful in bringing discussions on Africa and African Americans to the community. It should be noted that there are similar programs broadcast from the Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Filipino and other ethnic communities in Hawai'i.

Such discussions contribute to the well-being of the communities concerned and contribute to greater understanding in Hawai'i nei.

Miles M. Jackson is professor emeritus at the University of Hawai'i and the author of "And They Came: A Brief History of Blacks in Hawaii" (2000). He lives in Kahalu'u.