The State of Aloha

Last summer was my first and only trip to New Orleans.

I loved it. I had no official business being there other than to take ghost tours, drink ridiculous beverages and enjoy exotic eats like alligator pupu.

A couple of days into the vacation, I took a walk out of the bustling French Quarter and wandered about the city. I found myself at a vast circular roundabout. Low, concrete steps walked up to a large pillar rising to the sky. It was a grand place and yet we were the only tourists there. The few other inhabitants were some homeless folks and old drunks reclining around the base of the pillar. For the Big Easy, it was eerily quiet.

I looked up to the top of the pillar and saw the statue of a man in a bladed stance with his arms folded. He was wearing a long coat and had a beard. His body language resembled a disappointed father.

This place was known as Lee Circle. The statue was none other than a depiction of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Little did I know at the time that the statue was the center of a controversy that had been raging in the Big Easy — and the rest of the country — for quite some time.

Since my vacation, the statue of Gen. Lee was taken down. It was the last public memorial for a Confederate in the city to be removed. New Orleans isn’t alone. The removal of memorials and markers for slave-owning Confederates has made national headlines.

In some places, the reaction against the removals has resulted in violence. Last month in Charlottesville, Va., the city braced itself for demonstrations from the far-right protesting the removal of a statue of Gen. Lee, a Virginian. Billed as one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in recent history, nationalists clashed with a group of counter demonstrators. A state of emergency was declared. The violence climaxed when a speeding car rammed into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 others.

The removal of Confederate statues, memorials and markers has exposed a side of American society that is ugly and difficult. Lucky we live Hawaii, right? Surely there aren’t any Confederate memorials here.

Well, for the record, there are no publicly funded memorials for Confederate soldiers and officials. Kamehameha IV declared the kingdom neutral when the Civil War broke out in the United States. That, however, didn’t stop the sons of missionaries who attended colleges on the Mainland, particularly in the northeast, and brave Native Hawaiians from enlisting for the Union.

Even after the war, the kingdom did not see a need to memorialize what had happened — let alone honor slave owners. (Slavery, by the way, was outlawed in the kingdom’s constitution and slaves entering the jurisdiction were deemed free men and women.)

But that doesn’t mean the islands are free from this kind of controversy. Two high schools in Honolulu are named after presidents. The official name of the high school for kids living near Punchbowl is President Theodore Roosevelt High School. Their mascot is, of course, the Rough Riders, TR’s famous cavalry in the Spanish-American War that served in Cuba in 1898.

Roosevelt was also an unabashed imperialist and believed that white people had a divine right and obligation to dominate the world and spread their influence over allegedly weaker nations and peoples. This is the classic assumption of the “White Man’s Burden.” Ironically, a school in Honolulu with an overwhelming Asian population is named after him.

The public school on the other side of the freeway has a similar problem. President William McKinley High School is another beautiful campus along King Street. Its namesake, like Roosevelt, was an expansionist in the early 20th century. Naming a school after him here in Hawaii is particularly troublesome.

President McKinley rebuffed pleas to disavow the unlawful overthrow of the kingdom by a cabal of businessmen and infamously annexed these islands. His presidency saw the start of the Territory of Hawaii — a diminished state that would last for nearly six decades.

At the time of the annexation, the school that would later bear the president’s name had been around for years and was known as Honolulu High School. The name was changed in 1907 to honor the 25th president. A statue of the imperialist president even stands at the front of the campus.

These days — taking a hint from anti-Confederates on the Mainland — Native Hawaiians and activists are demanding a name change and removal of McKinley. For them, McKinley, Roosevelt and other streets and buildings are unjustified laurels for long-dead colonists and occupiers of their land.

So far they haven’t made any progress. Then again, that was the story for folks in New Orleans and Lee Circle. Perhaps someday.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”