Who Was Zonita Owens?

It’s difficult to avoid getting caught up in the details of the lives of the students who wrote the papers in the RASRL Collection. It could be a compelling narrative that is particularly well written or the careful delineation of feelings or reactions that makes a paper memorable.  Sometimes it is simple curiosity:  who are you and how did you end up in a sociology class at the University of Hawai‘i?

Zonita Owens wrote a paper about her experiences as a teacher at Waialua High School in 1947. The paper was a study of the home, school, and social environment of students in her social studies class.  She carefully tabulated her findings – the demography of the town, occupations, birthplaces, and the results of surveys that asked their opinions on current events.  It is a typical RASRL paper, but the author was not.

Zonita Owens was one of many  teachers  from the continent who came to Hawai‘i usually for one or two years.  The Department of Public Instruction regularly hired teachers from other parts of the United States, in part to meet demand but also to expand the exposure of local students to the world outside of Hawai‘i.  School administrators, politicians, and business leaders endlessly fretted about the local population, which was sometimes barely disguised racial stereotyping – the fear that the Japanese students would not – or perhaps COULD not – learn to “be American” because of their Asian ancestry.  Teachers from the continent were recruited for their expertise and training, and because they could provide a model for what it meant to be “American.”

Zonita was also African American.  She was born Zonita Stewart Jeffreys in 1908.  She was raised in Chicago and attended the University of Michigan where she graduated in 1929 with a  BA in Education.  She taught in the Chicago public school system and married  Dr. Nolan Owens in September of 1935.   Owens was a resident pediatrician in Washington DC, probably Howard University Hospital, which is where African American doctors were trained.   According to the 1940 U.S. Census,  Zonita was living with her mother in Chicago, not with her husband in Washington DC.

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Zonita Owens, University of Michigan Yearbook, 1925 (L); 1929 (R)

The Black population of Hawai‘i has always been relatively small, but during the war years, as many as 30,000 African Americans lived in or passed through Hawai‘i as members of the armed forces or as defense workers.  The RASRL writers occasionally talk about their encounters with African Americans, an ethnic group few had any contact with.  What they knew was based largely on the stereotypes perpetuated in American popular culture that depicted Black men as dangerous and a sexual threat.  Students confessed their shame at holding such prejudices that were often undermined after meeting or getting to know these Black men.   The men, however, were sometimes relieved to be in Hawai‘i, away from the Jim Crow south and free to walk the streets, eat in any restaurant, and interact with local people on an equal basis.  Ernest Golden signed on to work in Hawai‘i after December 7.  In an oral history, he confessed that at the time he had no idea that Pearl Harbor was in Hawai’i:  “I didn’t associate the two.”  He and his friends came for the money, but also to escape the South.  “Our motivation was leaving the South.  And I think that being drafted would have served that purpose almost as well…”  (Ernest Golden, “World War II and Hawaii’s Civilian Population.”  University of Hawai’i Oral History.)

Zonita Owens was a good observer of race, possibly because of her own background.   Growing up in Chicago during the Jim Crow era would have taught her a great deal about negotiating racial boundaries and what it meant to be an “outsider,” scrutinized and discriminated against.  The tone of her paper sometimes suggests bemusement, but never condescension or judgment.  She seems to have been accepted and liked by her students who cooperated with her, providing data and information that she used in her final paper.

Zonita reported on the tensions in the community and some of the antagonisms left over from the war.  Mainland teachers were unfamiliar with local culture and customs and unused to being marginalized in the local community.  In an era when teachers were authorized to act like social workers, intervening in the lives of their students by visiting their homes and getting to know their parents, these teachers faced a significant obstacle to that type of community interaction.

Isolated from social contact of almost any type naturally affects attitudes. Many mainland teachers, accustomed to being an active member of the community, soon discover their “community” is the school campus ONLY. Disciplinary problems are solved by Japanese, Filipino, or pidgin-speaking faculty members or office secretaries who, partially due to transportation limitations go to students’ homes. Efforts of the teacher to become better acquainted with the family problems are met with suspicion or resentment by the same school personnel who gossip freely and carelessly with adults and children about everybody’s most intimate private life. On May Day or other special occasions when parents do visit the school their children seldom introduce them to haole teachers. After all, teachers cannot even guess at the meaning of Japanese greetings and cannot or will not reply in pidgin. (“Teenagers in “Upstate” Oahu.”  RASRL Student Papers, A-7, n.d.)

How did this well-educated African American woman end up in Hawai‘i during or immediately after World War II?  Had she been recruited to teach in the Territory?  Or was she fulfilling a dream to travel?  She was apparently either a widow or divorced.  There is evidence that she spent some time in New Mexico, the place where her Social Security Card was issued.  But there the trail goes cold.

What do we make of these small stories?  What is the role of individual biography in historical scholarship?  Taken as a whole, the RASRL Collection sheds light on the Territory in an unusual way – from the perspective of people who ordinarily would not be included unless they happened to have participated in some larger events or had been asked to reflect on their experiences in hindsight. These small episodes raise more questions than they answer, but good questions are the heart of any kind of research.  They can act like light in a very dark tunnel.  Zonita Owens’s paper doesn’t tell us very much but it gives us a chance to raise questions about a wide variety of people who experienced life in the Territory.

If you stumble upon this post because you’re related to Zonita Stewart Jeffreys Owens, leave a comment, get in touch, and let us know more about this interesting woman.

Please visit our companion website Local Citing where we feature several community studies form the RASRL Collection in the Mapping the Territory exhibit.

4 thoughts on “Who Was Zonita Owens?

  1. Pingback: Where you stay?: Locals, Teachers and Local Teachers | Thinking Locally

  2. Pingback: Community Forces in Hawai‘i | Thinking Locally

  3. I am looking at a picture on my screen of Zonita Owens on a camel in from of the sphinx and one of the pyramids of Giza taken in 1956. I also have another of her, along side her good friend my mother, at my graduation from Dartmouth 1976.
    She and my mother, Ruth Brown Howard, I believe were friends from their time in Washington DC. My mom was teaching at Dunbar and getting her PhD from Catholic U.


    • Thanks for the information, Drew. Do you know anything more about the rest of her life? I didn’t have much luck. She obviously had a penchant for travel – did she continue to teach? Where did she end up? Did she ever talk about her time in Hawai’i with your mother?


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