Judith and George: Dating, Dancing, and the Limits of Racial Tolerance

It is unusual that we can trace the path of an RASRL paper from inception to fruition. The papers usually exist sui generis without much context to provide clues as to their origin or production. In these posts we’ve tried to fill in information about the writers, the time period, places that are mentioned or other facts that give the paper more texture.  But for the most part, the papers, journals, and maps that are part of RASRL stand alone.

So far, there is only one rather surprising exception,  an exchange between two people from different worlds who, but for the accident of war, would never have met:  Judith Kubo and George Sebastian.  Kubo was an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Hawai‘i; Sebastian was a private in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.”   It is unlikely the two ever met, but the exchange that took place between them tells us something about the experiences of African Americans in Hawai‘i and reveals even more about the local community and the limits of racial tolerance.

The Campus at War

KP 1943 War Bonds

Selling War Bonds on Campus Ka Palapala, 1943

In previous posts we have discussed the war in Hawai‘i from the point of view of local people, stressing things that are seldom discussed in the historiography of World War II.  The RASRL morale diaries provide candid snapshots of some of the day-to-day circumstances local people endured.  The war fundamentally transformed social interactions such as taking a ride on the bus or attending a dance.

The University of Hawai‘i also had to adjust to these dire and unprecedented conditions.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the campus was shuttered for several weeks.  Classes resumed in February of 1942, but with significant reductions in the student body, staff, and faculty.  Many immediately enlisted; others took defense jobs or began to do volunteer work that was more important to them than teaching or attending classes. Many co-curricular activities, especially varsity sports, were discontinued.  Social events had to be modified to conform to curfew regulations.  Beaches were closed, food and gas were rationed, and night-time activities were restricted.  Recreational activities were occasions to sell war bonds or make some other noticeable contribution to the war effort.

The University quickly became an outpost of military training.  The Army Radio Technical School shared facilities with the physics department. Farrington Hall hosted a branch of the Special Services established to train actors who entertained troops in the field. Service personnel and war workers were also enrolled in other classes such as engineering and Japanese language (University of Hawaii Bulletin June 1943).

KP 1943 GIs on campus

Ka Palapala 1943

The Territorial Legislature designated the University as the official repository for materials related to life in Hawai‘i during the war.  The University established the Hawaii War Records Depository (HWRD) for this purpose.   The Department of Sociology was allocated funds from the Board of Regents to create the War Research Laboratory to document and measure community morale (University of Hawaii Bulletin, The Report of the President for Fiscal Year July 1, 1942 to June 30, 1943, pp. 6-7).

The department adapted its curriculum and  began to teach a course about morale: Sociology 273, “Problems of Morale:  Nature of morale and related sociological concepts. Morale building and demoralization in peace and war.  Measurement and testing morale” University of Hawaii Bulletin, 1943, p. 84). In courses like this one, the Department assigned and collected student journals, informal assignments that asked students to record incidents they saw happening around them in their everyday lives. This type of exercise was already familiar to sociology students.  They regularly and routinely listened in on their families, friends, and neighbors and included that information in their papers. The morale diaries were only slightly different in that students were asked to focus on how civilians were coping with the War, not a difficult task since everything happening around them was an adaptation to the War and martial law.  Students were instructed to:

  1. Give day and date for each separate item recorded, in consecutive order.
  2. List factors you have noticed: news events, warnings, shortages, etc. if they seem to affect morale.
  3. List incidents you have observed on the bus, in shops, on the street, and conversations you have heard, when you think they reveal attitudes about the war and our place in it. Give background necessary for interpretation, e.g., occupation and race of persons. Report if incident was observed by you or told to you. Report rumors.  (“Morale Report Sociology Department University of Hawaii”

The Sociology Club, which had been publishing Social Process in Hawaii since 1935, carried on. The November 1941 issue (Volume VII) did not actually come out until June of 1942.  According to the editor Man Kwong Au, “The last line of proof of the 1941 issue of Social Process in Hawaii was completed on the 6th of December” (“Editor’s Note”  Social Process in Hawaii Vol. VII, November 1941, pg. 4).  Volume VIII, dated November 1943 was not released until 1944; volumes IX and X were combined and issued just one month before the war ended in July of 1945.  Both issues that came out during the war were wholly given over to discussing civilian life under military rule and the exigencies of living in a war zone.

Judith Kubo wrote two papers (possibly for two different classes) submitted in February of 1944:  “Social Change as Effected by the War” and “The Negro Soldier at Kahuku.”  Her work was based, at least in part, on information she recorded in an “observation journal” dated November 1943 to January 1944.  The second paper was edited and later published in Volume IX-X of Social Process in Hawaii in July of 1945.

“The Negro Soldier at Kahuku”

As was the case with many RASRL writers, Kubo wrote about a place she knew well.  Her diary entries are dated November and December 1943 and January of 1944, suggesting that she did most if not all of her observations and recording during the winter break from classes. She followed the instructions of the assignment and reported on what she was seeing and overhearing as well as what friends reported to her in letters and everyday conversations.   Her reports are ordinary, at least for wartime Hawai‘i:  a friend reported that the children of her employer call her “Jap” “…whenever I don’t let them do something”;  UH students arranging a dance were reluctant to invite military personnel residing on campus for fear that they might drive away the local boys;  a friend on Kaua‘i describes the gratitude expressed by GI’s who felt welcomed into the community.  Judith’s journal entries capture the voices of her informants.  A girl discussing the differences between dating local boys and service men commented:

“’Gee, some of these service men can certainly show you a good time, eh? I don’t understand how I’d be able to stand the crudeness and inconsiderateness of the boys here, but I guess we’ll just have to tolerate those drizzles – a mess of drips’” (Observation Report UHSj-438-I).

In “The Negro Soldier at Kahuku,” Kubo stated that her purpose was to “present my study of the attitudes and reactions of the community of Kahuku toward the colored soldiers.”   The paper is largely narrative, almost anecdotal, free from fact other than the information from the 1940 Census.  Given war time conditions it might not have been possible for her to conduct the kind of in-depth research seen in earlier community studies. This was suited to the department’s focus on morale, rumors, and the ways that local people were reacting to wartime conditions.  However, because she relied heavily on rumor and innuendo and does not attempt to verify information, her paper uncritically (and perhaps unintentionally) repeats all of the most common stereotypical representations of African Americans.  Although it was common for local people to blame Southern servicemen for spreading anti-Black prejudice, they would have been familiar with prevailing stereotypes that were the basis of these prejudices. Local theatre companies staged minstrel shows;  movies such as Gone with the Wind were shown and well received.   Even a cursory exposure to American popular culture was enough to reinforce the pernicious imagery of Black inferiority.

Unsurprisingly, Kubo’s informants express a mixture of curiosity about and fear of Black soldiers.  Kubo reported that in the early days of their arrival, children stood in the street and stared as they passed by.  Young men seemed to have enjoyed a friendlier relationship with the servicemen, accepting rides in their Jeeps and inviting them to play basketball. But women and girls were afraid – or at least made to feel afraid.  They were warned to stay at home or not allowed to go out at night unaccompanied because “you’ll never know what one of those Negroes might do to you” (p. 4). What they might do included a laundry list of insults, real and imagined.  The Negro soldiers were too fresh:   One had the audacity to write his name and address on a gum wrapper and pass it to a girl he had danced with.  They were too friendly:  “Once you talk to them, they always expect you to talk to them at any time and at any place” (p. 5). They were troublemakers; fights that broke out at dances were invariably blamed on the Black soldiers who had the temerity to ask a girl to dance.  They were potentially violent, carrying knives, or making weapons out of broken bottles.

Kubo reported the rumors that seemed to give substance to these stereotypes.  A young woman, still recovering from her pregnancy, had a friendly conversation with a serviceman who was passing by her house:

The next day he returned, walking into the yard and began talking to her about the weather and asked questions about Kahuku.  When he came back on the third day, he gained enough courage to walk up until [sic] the entrance of the house.  The lady became frightened by his advances … and had herself removed to her father’s home.  For awhile, the Negro didn’t bother her, but apparently he was looking around for her, for after a few days he found her at her father’s home. This time the negro went straight into the girls [sic] room.  Hearing footsteps the father went to the girls [sic] room.  He swore at the negro, called a neighbor to have him go after the police (p. 5).

As always, young women were in the unenviable position of having to entertain servicemen as part of their patriotic duty.  Those who were not able to overcome their visceral revulsion to the Black servicemen (they “smelled awful” or “felt dirty”) refused to dance with them.  The girls who did accept their invitations found that the White soldiers would no longer dance with them. On one occasion a young woman refused to dance with a Negro soldier.  “He was walking away disgusted, when he heard the girl accepting a dance with a white soldier.”  When he returned to confront her, “… the white soldier stood up to protect the girl” (p. 7).  In the brawl that ensued, at least one person was stabbed and the police had to be called to break up the dance. The stereotypes provide the framework through which the actions of Black soldiers are interpreted; innocent gestures become menacing threats.  The sexually aggressive behavior of White soldiers is rationalized; the same behaviors by Black soldiers is pathologized.  In this way, locals were absolved of responsibility for their bigotry.

Although Kubo’s stated purpose was to report on the reaction of the local population to the presence of Negro soldiers in Kahuku, her subject shifts as she begins to report almost exclusively on the behavior of the Black servicemen.  The local population “didn’t give the Negro soldiers much chance” but “the Negroes haven’t made themselves especially desirable either” (p. 5).  She subtly blames the victims, suggesting that they are the cause of the fights that break out at dances.  Kubo reported that on one occasion two White soldiers were assaulted by two Black soldiers, seemingly unprovoked.  In another case, several Black soldiers were accused of stabbing a Filipino man. After they were banned from coming into town, Kubo reports that they began to sneak around at night. Kubo admits that she and her informant had no way of knowing the cause of the fight, but the recitation of events like this is not a neutral retelling of the story:  it reinforces all of the most injurious representations of African Americans.

“The haole soldiers don’t very often come out and say directly what’s wrong with the negroes.  All they say is that it isn’t right.  Once in a while, some one [sic] would talk about the negroes not being fully civilized as yet, and whenever they’re angry they do drastic things or that the negroes are very emotional and easily aroused, sexually” (p. 12).

Late in the paper, Kubo offers a contrast between the soldiers stationed in Kahuku to those from the same regiment stationed in Pearl City. The Pearl City  group, “…are quite the opposite of the Negroes that are stationed in Kahuku.  The majority … are mainly from the North. They are far more educated than the Negroes from the South and many of them can talk of their college degrees” (p.16).  After describing the quality of relations between the Black servicemen and girls from each ethnic group, Kubo concludes that the friendlier relationships between Black soldiers and local people in Pearl City can be explained as follows:

The people of Pearl City have accepted the negroes readily.  This may be attributed to the better quality and behavior of the negroes, the relatively small number of white soldiers to influence the people, and in the difference in the people themselves.  Pearl City is comparatively more urbanized than Kahuku and as such, the people are more liberal … (p. 19).

A highly edited version of Kubo’s paper was published in the 1945 edition of Social Process in Hawaii.  In addition to being reorganized, the published version of her paper strikes a more objective tone.  There is a greater emphasis on sociological concepts and stories that in the paper are uncritically reported are emphatically described as rumors.  The published version presents a more neutral description of the relationship between Black soldiers and local residents and Kubo and the editor took pains to explain the attitudes of Kahuku residents based on their isolation from more diverse areas of O‘ahu such as Pearl City. Kubo’s discussion of the situation in Pearl City was limited to four pages at the end of her paper but in the published version it is equal to her discussion of Kahuku, graphically illustrating an attempt to present a more balanced representation of negative and relatively positive views of these African American soldiers.

Kubo could not have been aware of the affect her paper might have had on a Black audience, but when she received a letter from George W. Sebastian, she found out.

“Dear Miss Atyml”

Dear Miss Atmyl

George Sebastian’s Letter, RASRL Student Journals Box J1, Fld. 14

George W. Sebastian was a private in the 369th Anti-aircraft Artillery Group.  During World War I, they fought as the 369th Infantry Regiment and were given the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters” from the Germans.  From the French Army they earned the Croix de Guerre for bravery and the nickname, “Men of Bronze.” The regiment was welcomed back to New York at the end of the war with a parade through New York City witnessed by thousands.

369th Infantry Parade, New York City 1917

The Harlem Hellfighters parade up 5th Avenue after fighting in France in World War I. Source: AOTUS, National Archives Blog

The regiment was re-organized during World War II as the Anti-aircraft Artillery Group and arrived in Hawai‘i in June of 1942.  They were  part of the defense of several installations including Camp Malakole and the Army Airbase at Kahuku.

369th on King Street

Members of the 369th on South King Street

During their time in Hawai‘i, the regiment was subjected to racial insults, which led to altercations and physical violence.  White enlisted men refused to salute Black officers; southern soldiers attempted to enforce their own sense of racial protocol even when they violated Army regulations or local custom. In their book about World War II in Hawai‘i, The First Strange Place, Beth Bailey and David Farber describe how the regiment responded: with their fists. It took only a few months for the word to get out that the Hellfighters would not be cowed by Southern soldiers who insisted that they get off the sidewalk or insulted them with racial epithets. Two White soldiers died after being punched by members of the regiment.  The Black soldiers were not prosecuted because they were defending themselves. An act that would have led to a lynching in the South was treated very differently by military authorities in wartime Hawai‘i.  White soldiers got the message and steered clear of the 369th.  Black soldiers got the message, too, and when they were in Honolulu, they took to wearing “…the red trimmed caps of the [369th]. The caps insured a measure of respect” (Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, p. 152).  (See also John Bond, “Famous 369th Regiment Provided WW II Anti-Aircraft Defense of Ewa MCAS”  and John D. Bennett, “Kahuku Army Airbase:  One of Oahu’s World War II Satellite Fields.“)


RASRL Student Journals Box J1, Fld. 14

George Sebastian responded to Judith Kubo in a letter postmarked March 1944.  (The letter was attached to her paper in the RASRL files.)  It was addressed to her student mailbox on campus. Therefore we can be reasonably sure that Kubo read the letter. It is unlikely that there were many copies of the paper so it stands to reason that someone on campus, someone who may have known or had contact with members of the 369th, showed the paper to Sebastian.  Kubo interviewed people in Pearl City so it could be that Kubo herself gave the paper to someone close to Sebastian who passed it along to him.

Although he knew her name, Sebastian addresses her as “Miss Atmyl.”  (He does not explain what this means, which suggests that it is not Army slang or military jargon, but something she could easily be able to decipher.  We have been unsuccessful in our attempt to find out what it means.)  It seems unlikely that they had met, that Sebastian, for example, had acted as an informant for her paper.  (At one point Sebastian disparages a “conniving female who related all those intimate details to other people’s business in Pearl City to you”  suggesting that he knew or knew of one of her informants (George W. Sebastian Letter, RASRL Student Journal Box J1 Folder 14, p. 2).

Sebastian’s three-page single-spaced response is emotional:  several sentences are typed in all caps and several more are underlined for emphasis.  His tone is often sarcastic to the point of condescension. Although he says “your ‘theme’ did not irritate me in the least,” he also says  that “the members of this organization were… highly incensed” (George Sebastian Letter, RASRL Student Journal Box J1 Folder 14, p. 1). Sebastian takes umbrage at a number of things in Kubo’s paper:  he objects to the racial terminology she used saying “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A NEGRO” (emphasis in original), that everyone, save Whites, are “colored.” Rather, he suggests that just as she is considered “Japanese-American,” he should be referred to as “African American.”  “All these terms should not be used however, unless absolutely necessary for, according to the Constitution and the Democracy of the United States, we are ALL AMERICANS and should be addressed only as such” (p. 2).

Sebastian explains his ire by describing his own attitude when he arrived in Hawai‘i expecting it to be the “paradise” presented in Hollywood movies.  After being rejected by local women at dances, he understood that local people had adopted mainland stereotypes about African Americans that had also been offered up in American popular culture.   He withdrew from going to social events “out of self-respect.” He added that “I have been cautioning my fellows from the regiment against trying to become too friendly with the girls … as they … possess a ‘superiority complex of abnormal intensity’ and meant them … no good” (p. 2).

Sebastian attributed the shortcomings in Kubo’s paper to ignorance, suggesting that she was woefully misinformed about African Americans.  He listed, for her benefit, the achievements of African Americans – as judges, doctors, police officers – such successes achieved “in only 79 years” (since emancipation).

Although he does not attempt to refute all of the stereotypical accusations in her paper, Sebastian does respond to one:

As to the young lady who mentioned our having a “peculiar odor”, – before I was enlightened as to the indifference of the girls here, I used to attend dances quite frequently, and I can assure you, that on several occasions, while dancing with one of the sweet-young-things, the odor emanating from her body, “FAILED TO ENTHRALL.”  Still I couldn’t very well judge all the girls on the Island by these few careless individuals (p. 3).

Sebastian’s most stinging critique comes at the end of his letter.  Being in Hawai‘i had disabused him of the fantasy perpetuated about the Islands in popular culture.  She, on the other hand, had done nothing to educate herself.  After suggesting that she herself go to the mainland and learn first hand about the Black community he reminds her that  “the AJA” (referring to members of the 442nd who were being trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi) were quickly discovering the reality of White racial attitudes:

I assure you, nothing ever better could have happened to you good poor people, than when they sent your AJA’s there.   Your mouths will probably fly open and never close again, when upon their return to their beloved Island, they relate to you all the unpleasant incidents and humiliations suffered at the hands of those same people, who their sisters, cousins, aunts, etc. back in Hawaii look upon and worship as God (p. 3).

George Sebastian’s response to Judith Kubo’s paper is condescending and arrogant.  After several months in Hawai‘i he suggests he knows enough about the local population to write a book.  He all but insults her work, calling her paper a “theme,” as if it was no more than a high school book report.  And although her paper trades in rumor and innuendo, the assignment was based on personal observations – she was meant to be reporting on what she heard and observed.  The paper is not objective but it is innocent.

However, it is easy to understand Sebastian’s  response.  African Americans came to Hawai‘i harboring the image of the Islands as a racial paradise and although they were treated with far less discrimination than they might have met in other places in the US, many, like George Sebastian, were disappointed to find that there was no real escape from White bigotry.  It is difficult not to lash out; bearing the weight of racial prejudice is exhausting, and we feel that in Sebastian’s rigorous defense of himself and his fellow members of the 369th.

The highly edited version of Kubo’s paper published in Social Process de-emphasized the poor treatment of African Americans in Kahuku by editing out many of the more inflammatory statements and carefully distinguishing between fact and rumor.  The negative depiction of the treatment of Negroes in Kahuku is offset by the relatively positive treatment of the Negro soldiers in Pearl City, leaving the reader with the impression that Black soldiers were as likely to be treated well as treated poorly and that the stereotypes and the prejudice they faced could be explained away as the natural response to rumors that circulated during the War.

It is hard to know what to make of this exchange and tempting to imagine what kind of conversation Judith and George might have had.  As members of  disparaged communities, they might have discussed the damaging affects of stereotypes and the difficulty of overcoming them.  They were both objectified by Hollywood, by the military, by American popular culture.  They were stigmatized and made to feel shame for who they (or their parents) were.  George’s reaction, his very presence, might have made Judith more aware of the ways that White supremacy had influenced her own up-bringing in Hawai‘i, a place that was clearly not a racial paradise for everyone.

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



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