A Dishonorable Killing: Joe Kahahawai Has Been Called Hawaii's Emmett till. but Unlike till, Kahahawai's Death More Than 70 Years Ago Has Never Made the History Books

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Dishonorable Killing: Joe Kahahawai Has Been Called Hawaii's Emmett till. but Unlike till, Kahahawai's Death More Than 70 Years Ago Has Never Made the History Books


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


The brutal slaying in 1955 of Emmett Till by at least two White Southerners shocked and outraged the country. Published photos of the Black teenager's mutilated body on the covers of Jet and The Chicago Defender galvanized the civil rights movement, especially in the South.

A sadly similar crime in Hawaii 23 years earlier also led residents of that state to unite and demand social change. Like Till, 22-year-old Joe Kahahawai was murdered by angry Whites. But there is at least one stark difference between the two cases. Till's story has been seared into the American consciousness. It is recorded in the history books.

Kahahawai's story, meanwhile, is almost universally absent from textbooks in this country. His name isn't even familiar to most history faculty outside Hawaii, much less to the general public.

"It's a shame, too, because stories like this one have a lasting impact by opening up our understanding of race, class and gender issues," says Dr. Kevin Boyle, an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. Boyle, who has studied and taught at various institutions in the Midwest and on the East Coast, first learned of Kahahawai in the late 1990s from a Hawaiian graduate student whose work he supervised at the University of Massachusetts.

Last year, Dr. David Stannard, a University of Hawaii American studies professor, published Honor Killing, a book detailing the events and historical circumstances surrounding Kahahawai's death. Stannard, who also has taught at Yale and Stanford universities, as well as the University of Colorado, has never seen mention of Kahahawai in any history text outside Hawaii. Yet the murder generated such a media storm during the first half of 1932 that The New York Times ran almost 200 stories about it, he says.

While doing research for the book, Stannard was able to find local residents who were willing to describe day-to-day life and the political and social climate of that time. But more often than not, their accounts were given anonymously, reflecting the sense of privacy important among the community. It also reflects a cultural value common among Asian Pacific Islanders that emphasizes silent acceptance of the status quo over aggressive calls for change. Both traits perhaps help explain why Kahahawai's name rings few, if any, bells on the mainland.

Stannard and Boyle say Kahahawai's slaying doesn't fit into most Americans' image of Hawaii a picturesque tourist haven with exotic hula dancers at every turn. They say the main reason Americans know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 is that the event propelled the country into World War II.

The elements of Kahahawai's case illuminated the sharp racial divide of the time: a White woman's uncorroborated accusation that she was raped by non-White men, a vigilante kidnapping, a murder and two sensational trials that drew worldwide media attention. In fact, the second trial marked the end of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow's career.

STARK PARALLELS

In September of 1931, 20-year-old Thalia Massie accused Kahahawai and four other young men--two Japanese, one Hawaiian and one Hawaiian-Chinese--of kidnapping her while she was walking at night, stuffing her into a car and gang-raping her. Massie, a distant relative of President Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, had moved to Honolulu with her Navy officer husband, Lt. Tommie Massie, for his submarine squadron assignment. At the time, Hawaii was an annexed U.S. territory with a governor appointed by the president. Life for native Hawaiians at the time was similar to life for Blacks in the South: poverty, marginalization and disrespect on a daily basis.

Massie's accusations were inconsistent from the beginning. She insisted that her attackers were Hawaiian, not Asian, but was initially unable to describe them individually. She eventually identified the license plate number of a car belonging to one of the suspects, although many historians suspect the number was provided by a police officer in the station. …

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