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When Change Arrived

Two Criminal Prosecutions in the 1930s Helped Transform Hawaii Race Relations

Posted Oct 24, 2006 6:36 AM CDT
By James Podgers

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In 1931, the Ala Wai Inn was a nondescript but popular watering hole at the edge of Waikiki, a relatively peaceful seaside neighborhood of Honolulu that was still a few decades from being transformed into a high-rise tourist mecca.

But when Thalia Massie, a young Navy wife who was related to President Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, wandered out of the Ala Wai Inn on the night of Sept. 12, 1931, she set off a chain of events that resulted in two of the most notorious trials in Depression-era America. Those trials helped transform race relations in Hawaii. So there was a certain historic symmetry to the fact that an ABA Annual Meeting program based on some of the key courtroom events of the Massie case was held at the Hawaii Convention Center, which stands on the very site once occupied by the Ala Wai Inn.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. James R. “Duke” Aiona Jr., who served as judge for the mock trial sponsored by the ABA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division, said he remembers asking his father as a high school student in the 1970s if he remembered any events that illustrated racial tensions in Hawaii during earlier years.

“He immediately mentioned the Massie case,” Aiona said. “Hawaii is a small state, and back then it was even smaller, and this case had a significant impact on race relations.” Thalia Massie left her husband, Tommie, a Navy lieutenant, behind when she walked out of the Ala Wai Inn that night, and when he returned home early the next morning, he found her in hysterics.

“Something terrible has happened,” she reportedly told her husband, claiming she had been abducted and raped by five young Hawaiian men. Police quickly arrested suspects, but only two were Hawaiian—two of the men were Japanese, and one was Chinese. Even though the case against the men was weak, they were charged with rape. Their trial stirred publicity throughout the United States at a time when lynchings were still common in many parts of the country, but also when Hawaii—still a U.S. territory—was establishing its allure as an exotic destination.

The case produced a hung jury. The result angered many in Hawaii’s white community, including Navy officials, who stepped up calls they had been making for some time to bring the territory under military rule. On the mainland, many newspaper editorials expressed outrage at the failure of Hawaii’s justice system to protect white women from attacks by natives.

The Second Time Around

Even as prosecutors pledged to retry the defendants, Thalia’s mother, Grace Fortescue, and Tommie took matters into their own hands. With the help of two Navy enlisted men, they kidnapped one of the defendants, Joseph Kahahawai. Soon after, he was dead from a gunshot wound, and they were arrested with his body in the back of their car.

The subsequent murder trial was every bit as sensational as the earlier rape trial. Despite the efforts of their attorney—Clarence Darrow in his last great trial appearance—they were convicted, but then the governor commuted their sentences to one hour in his office. Within days, all of them—along with Thalia and Darrow—left the islands.

With Thalia unavailable to testify, the retrial of the four remaining defendants in the rape trial never took place—until the abbreviated enactment at the annual meeting, at the end of which a packed meeting room of “jurors” voted unanimously to give the defendants the acquittal they probably deserved all along in real life.

At first, Aiona noted in a follow-up interview after the program, “the case really divided opinions between haoles—whites—and other groups,” including the large Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities. “It galvanized those communities and unified them with local Hawaiians.” That budding political influence “led them to gain strength and power to take over their own state.”

The increased social interaction that followed helped Hawaii evolve into the cultural melting pot that helps make it unique, Aiona said. “That’s where we stand apart,” he said, “in the beauty of our people.”

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