Friday, May 24, 2024 Nic Butler, Ph.D

Charlestonians got their first taste of Hawaiian culture in December 1901, when a band of Pacific Islanders came to represent the newly-acquired territory at the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. Local audiences were entranced by their mellifluous songs and the rhythmic gestures of native hula dancers swaying to curious sounds produced by strumming ukeleles and unconventional guitar playing. After performing for segregated audiences—Black and White—in the city, the roving Hawaiians trekked inland to impart a lasting influence on the vernacular music of the American South.

South Carolinians of the late nineteenth century learned about the people of Hawaii through newspaper articles detailing their political struggles. The remote archipelago, formerly known as the Sandwich Islands, was unified under King Kamehameha in 1795. American missionaries and investors thereafter built schools and introduced plantation crops like sugar cane, rice, and coffee. In 1893, a group of pro-American conspirators illegally deposed the reigning monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani. Insurgents then formed a provisional government that sought to orchestrate annexation by the United States. President Benjamin Harrison favored annexation, but his term in office ended before the matter was settled. Incoming President Grover Cleveland, inaugurated in early 1894, favored the restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy and stifled the political drive towards annexation. In the meantime, the islands’ provisional government at Honolulu established the independent Republic of Hawaii in the summer of 1894. The outbreak of the brief Spanish-American War in the spring of 1898 renewed U.S. interest in annexing Hawaii as a stepping stone across the Pacific to the newly-acquired Philippine Islands. Hawaii became an official territory of the United States in August 1898 and gained its own territorial government in the spring of 1900. That status continued until 1959, when it became the fiftieth of the United States of America.

Charlestonians of the late nineteenth century also read about the participation of Hawaiian people at several grand expositions and world’s fairs, including those in Philadelphia, Paris, Sydney, and the famous Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The first large-scale fair of the twentieth century, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, forms an important prelude to the story of the first Hawaiians to visit Charleston. Besides exhibits highlighting American industry and commerce, the Buffalo expo included several “villages” representing such distant locales as Hawaii, Persia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Japan. These cultural exhibits, arranged within the peripheral “Midway,” depicted the participants as exotic and primitive people for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience. According to one Charlestonian visiting Buffalo, the international villages were “peopled by the real men, women and children of these various countries, living in houses the counterpart of those they occupy at home, using the same implements, wearing the same clothing or absence of it, and amusing themselves after their own fashion.”[1]

To enliven the Hawaiian village at the Buffalo Pan-American expo, organizers recruited a large troupe of performers directly from the Pacific archipelago. A “company” of approximately forty-five Hawaiian men and women, many with family connections to the deposed monarchy, sailed across the Pacific to California in early 1901, and then journeyed by train to upstate New York. During the six-month run of the Buffalo exposition, from early May to early November, visitors to the “Hawaiian Village and Theater” witnessed the daily performances of native singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. The official guide book to the fair described the Hawaiian exhibit as an “especially interesting” attraction representing “our new island possession. In the village one can see the whole modus of sugar and coffee culture, gigantic palms, and the rites and ceremonies of the islanders. In the theater are given the native plays by native actors, introducing the famous Hula-Hula dancing girls, who dance this graceful measure as it is only danced to royalty.”[2] While the exhibits at the Pan-American exposition enabled white Americans to learn about the culture and products of distant lands, one journalist pronounced the Hawaiian Village “a disappointment” because “the only industry shown in dancing.”[3]

Hula dancing is an important medium of story-telling in Hawaiian culture, using gestures to enhance verse sung or chanted by vocalists, but American audiences of 1901 largely focused on the exotic sensuality of scantily-clad or topless women with light brown skin swaying provocatively in grass skirts.[4] The dancers were accompanied by men strumming ukeleles and plucking slide guitars, both of which represent nineteenth-century adaptations of European instruments. By sliding a small bar of smooth steel or glass along the strings of a traditional acoustic guitar, Hawaiian musicians produced novel glissandos and ethereal melodies unfamiliar to American audiences. That distinctive sound is now a fixture of popular music around the world, but it was a curious novelty to those visiting the Buffalo Pan-American expo of 1901.

Charlestonians of that era read numerous newspaper reports about events at the Buffalo fair, including the September assassination of President William McKinley. Carolinians who did not venture northward to see the Pan-American expo looked forward to a similar exhibition in their own backyard. At the dawn of the new century, a number of local capitalists began planning a miniature world’s fair in a northwestern suburb of the City of Charleston. The South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition Company, incorporated in the spring of 1900, secured the use of a large swath of land that now encompasses Hampton Park and the campus of The Citadel. Scheduled to open in December 1901, the exposition sought to demonstrate “to the different states of the Union, to the West Indian Islands, and to the world at large, the advantageous position of Charleston as a point for export and import trade, and to further show the marvellous [sic] advance along all lines of commercial, financial and manufacturing progress that the State of South Carolina and her sister states of the South Atlantic seaboard had made during the last quarter of the past century.”[5]

The Charleston exposition company engaged the services of a number of agents who traversed the hemisphere to secure various regional exhibits at the local event. John Knapp, for example, served as “special commissioner from the Exposition to the Western States,” and visited Honolulu in May 1901 to solicit Hawaiian representation at the upcoming expo in South Carolina. From the island territory’s nascent legislature, Knapp reportedly secured an appropriation “sufficient to transfer the government exhibit now at Buffalo to Charleston, at the expiration of the Pan-American Exposition.”[6]

By the summer of 1901, promoters of the Charleston exposition announced that the upcoming fair would include exhibits from several “new possessions” of the United States, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and various nations within Latin America. “Thousands of applications for space on the part of exhibitors are on file,” wrote local journalist Eola Willis with her customary exaggeration, “and among the most interesting of the concessions for which a place has been asked is the Hawaiian Village and volcano of Kilauea. This will naturally constitute a most interesting feature.”[7]

Like the celebrated fairs at Chicago and Buffalo, the Charleston expo included a gaudy recreational area located just outside the ornamented campus containing the principal exhibits. The local midway, which included a small grid of temporary streets, was located under the present athletic fields on the west side of Rutledge Avenue, between Moultrie and Grove Streets. Here visitors found numerous curious attractions and several “villages” representing foreign locales. A press release issued at the expo’s opening in December 1901 described the scene for prospective customers with the typical romanticized and exoticized language of that era:

“On either side [of the Midway thoroughfare] will be viewed scores of strange looking and peculiarly garbed men from every clime, Turks and Syrians, Armenians and Hindoos [sic], Arabs and Egyptians, each vieing [sic] with the other in brightness of colors and jabbering away in unknown tongues. Camels and dromedaries, elephants and zebras, in long procession, amid the musical discords of many contending bands, make pandemonium, while close at hand dancing Dervish are seen hobnobbing with Esquimaux [sic] from Labrador or Greenland, and a dusky Hawaiian maiden tries her unknown language on a recent importation from the Philippine Islands.”[8]

The Buffalo Pan-American Exposition closed at the beginning of November 1901, but, contrary to months of promotional literature, the Hawaiian Village and its large troupe of performers did not migrate southward to the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. Back in western New York, the Buffalo press noted that there had had been an “open rebellion” among the members of the Hawaiian troupe, the majority of whom sought to return to their native islands at the expense of the territorial government.[9] According to a later newspaper report, the unidentified “barker” of the Hawaiian village at Buffalo then tried to convince them to remain in the United States and perform at various communities along the eastern seaboard. “To them he pictured possibilities of gain if they stayed. He would be the manager and engagements of $500 a week would be easily made. As a starter, he would go to Charleston, where the exposition was soon to open, and arrange for their appearance there.”[10]

A group of fourteen Hawaiians—including ten men, one boy, and three women—elected to go southward to Charleston. Led by musician Joseph Puni (born 1868), the reduced troupe remained at Buffalo until late November, performing at various social events and discussing plans to play before ex-Queen Liliuokalani and President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.[11] Several vaudeville managers offered to arrange bookings at various theaters in the Northeast, but the Hawaiians declined, having already given “a good round sum” of their savings to their unidentified “barker,” who had spirited ahead to Charleston to make arrangements for their reception.[12] Coincidentally, the proprietor of the Hawaiian Village at Buffalo, E. W. McConnell (perhaps the “barker” in question), came to Charleston in October 1901 to arrange for the transfer of several midway attractions from the Pan-American exposition. For reasons now unclear, however, the Hawaiian exhibit was not among those McConnell shipped to Charleston.[13]

The South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition opened to the public on 1 December 1901, by which time Joseph Puni and thirteen Hawaiian colleagues had arrived in the Palmetto City. We can only imagine their disappointment when they discovered “that arrangements had not been made for them, nor was there any opening among the exposition attractions. Their meager hoard [of savings] had dwindled to but very little, and the land and people, so strange to them, seemed stranger still in the Southland.”[14] Less than forty years after the end of slavery, impoverished people of African descent still formed the majority population of both the City of Charleston and the State of South Carolina. All aspects of the city’s cultural life were rigidly segregated according to skin color, and the visiting Hawaiians, graced with tawny skin and dark hair and eyes, must have confused local residents.[15] The small number of Chinese families then residing in Charleston were considered “white” for legal purposes, but, like the visiting Hawaiians, they embraced the freedom to cross racial lines with some fluidity.

At some point after their arrival here, the unemployed Hawaiians made the acquaintance of a “Southern preacher who was interested in getting up church entertainments.” This mysterious figure, whom we can tentatively identify as one Clarence Smith, was later described as “the means of rescue to the [Hawaiian] boys, who were now close to starvation.” With the assistance of their new local friend, Joseph Puni and the others “started a little show in a store building.” The store in question cannot be precisely identified, but it was evidently a commercial space in the heart of the city’s retail district that was transformed on successive evenings into a viable performance space.[16] Their debut took place on December 9th, after which the Charleston Evening Post published a brief review of the novel entertainment:

“The Hawaiian singers and dancers who were at the Pan-American [Exposition] at Buffalo, have arrived in the city and are singing in the concert hall on King Street opposite Burn’s Lane. Their initial performance was given last night[,] and their sweet singing attracted hundreds of visitors during the evening. They brought with them all the musical instruments used by the natives of the Hawaiian Islands, which are used in the performance[,] and while all [the] music is being rendered[,] the Hawaiian girls execute native dances. The singing of the male quartette is very fine and elicited much applause.”[17]

On the morning of December 11th, the members of the visiting band travelled down Meeting Street with their local “manager” to stage an impromptu show at the city’s busiest intersection. The press noted that the Hawaiian men standing at the corner of Broad Street wore white cotton suits with broad red sashes tied around their waists, their Panama hats and suits ornamented with yellow trimmings, while the ladies appeared in some unrecorded form of native attire. “The musicians appeared in front of the City Hall and were about to give the numbers there,” reported the Evening Post, “but Mayor [James Adger] Smyth thought that the crowds would blockade the street too much and the musicians were invited into the building.” After being introduced by their manager, identified here as “Dr. Clarence Smith,” the band ascended the hall’s interior staircase. Within the spacious Council Chamber on the second floor, the men strummed ukeleles and guitars to accompany several Hawaiian songs rendered in their distinctively-sweet four-part harmony. Near them swayed “four Hawaiian women, loosely garbed,” said the Evening Post, whose novel hula gestures “monopolized the attention of many, although they had no part in the musical program. Several of the city officials were caught making goo-goo eyes and they now fear to face their wives.” The impromptu concert concluded with “the native song, ‘My Heart to You,’” after which Mayor Smyth and his staff applauded their Hawaiian guests. While Dr. Smith chatted with the mayor, the musicians and dancers packed their gear and prepared to serenade the nearby offices of the Evening Post at 111 Meeting Street, next door to Hibernian Hall.[18]

The Hawaiian Band continued to perform at the so-called “Hawaiian Theatre on King street, opposite Burns Lane,” through the end of 1901, “but the financial results were slender.”[19] Local audiences were simply too small and too poor to justify the concentration of attractions crowded into Charleston for the grand Exposition. The fair itself was plagued by a host of financial and logistical problems from beginning to end. The Midway concessions, for example, did not officially open until December 21st, at which time several of the principal attractions were still under construction. A press description of a grand parade of exotic animals and humans traveling from Broad Street northward to the expo grounds that day included many foreign visitors, but it did not mention the participation of any Hawaiians.[20]

The duration of the band’s tenure at the King Street storefront is unknown, but it might have continued through the holiday season to the middle of January 1902. Similarly, the location of their temporary residence in Charleston is also unclear. Their local manager, Dr. Smith, might have reserved several rooms within a downtown hotel, or he might have tapped some of his white friends to open spare rooms to the visiting artists. It is possible, however, that members of the city’s Black community sheltered the Hawaiians, and perhaps were the first to render assistance when the friendless band arrived at Charleston’s train depot. A diligent search for additional clues might discover the answer, but, in the meantime, consider the following compelling piece of evidence: On the evening of January 20th, 1902, the Hawaiian band presented its final Charleston show—the only one preceded by advance advertisement—within the sanctuary of an African-American Baptist church.

A brief press notice published two days prior noted that “the company of Hawaiian singers and players on musical instruments that has delighted so many persons here will give a farewell concert and entertainment Monday evening at the Morris Street Baptist Church. The Hawaiians will sing, play and lecture, appearing in their native costume.” That information was repeated in a separate notice inserted by Rev. John L. Dart, pastor of the congregation in question, which added that admission to the performance cost just ten cents.[21] It remains unclear, however, if the Hawaiian ladies performed their sacred hula dances within the Morris Street sanctuary. Misunderstandings about the role of the noble hula in traditional Hawaiian culture might have angered some members of the congregation, or perhaps the Black Baptists objected to the pastor charging admission to a house of worship. Perhaps it was no coincidence that an angry schism erupted at Morris Street some weeks after the farewell concert, in which the majority of the congregation ejected the long-serving Rev. Dart. That well-publicized firing ignited months of vitriolic litigation and prompted the occasional police presence at church services within the Morris Street Baptist Church (see Episode No. 275).

After their final performance in Charleston on January 20th, the Hawaiian band journeyed farther south with or without their mysterious manager, Clarence Smith. In press coverage across several Southern states during the late winter and early spring of 1902, newspapers repeatedly described Joseph Puni as the leader and spokesman of a group consistently identified as the “Hawaiian Glee Club.” Extant newspapers provide an incomplete trail of their route from Savannah, Georgia, to St. Augustine, Palm Beach, Daytona, Cocoa Beach, and Miami, Florida, before returning northward through the same venues to Jekyll Island, Georgia, Florence and Darlington, South Carolina, Raleigh, Goldsboro, and Oxford, North Carolina, and Petersburg, Virginia, before arriving at Washington D.C. in late May.[22]

Meanwhile, back in Charleston, John Knapp of the struggling South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition visited the former monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, at her home in Washington, D.C., and reportedly convinced her to make a brief appearance at the Charleston fair, which, unfortunately, did not include any native Hawaiian presence.[23] Local managers thereafter promoted Saturday, 24 May 1902, as “Hawaiian Day” at the expo, but, at the last minute, the queen allegedly changed her mind about visiting Charleston’s poorly-managed “Ivory City.”[24] Perhaps she anticipated the Washington arrival of Joseph Puni and the other members of the itinerate Hawaiian band, whom she later introduced to President Roosevelt at a private soirée.

Sometime after the Hawaiian band or “Glee Club” of fourteen members rested at Washington, another split occurred. Seven traveled onward to New York, while the remaining seven continued to perform in the nation’s capital. Near the end of 1902, an article in the Charleston Evening Post lamented the travails of the ill-fated Hawaiian band that had arrived here, friendless, one year earlier. “They have not yet gotten under full sail, but are limping along in a great effort to reach their native land once more, quite disheartened with their experience in the United States. They have not progressed any farther than Washington[,] and they are now in that city trying to make enough money to get back to their islands.”[25]

That charitable sentiment, though kind, represents an outsider’s view of the scene. Joseph Puni, on the other hand, might have described the past year as a worthwhile adventure. He and other Hawaiian musicians elected to remain on the mainland and tour across North America during the early years of the twentieth century. Through hundreds of performances and numerous recordings, they popularized the diminutive ukelele and the use of steel or glass slides on guitar strings to create evocative glissandos. Guitarists Black and White, performing Blues and Country music, adopted the slide techniques pioneered by the talented Hawaiians, and the distinctive sound of the “Hawaiian guitar” soon became a fixture of American culture.[26] Joseph Puni remained on the mainland for several more years, and then performed across Europe until Nazi aggression propelled him back to Honolulu in 1939.[27]

The brief tale of a Hawaiian band visiting Charleston in late 1901 and early 1902 represents a relatively small but important episode in the community’s long history. The characters at the center of today’s narrative resided here for approximately two months, and extant records include only a faint outline of their movements. Despite these shortcomings, I hope you’ll agree, their adventures represent an interesting addition to the history of American awareness of Hawaiian culture that helps us appreciate the diversity of our nation. We might not possess all the details necessary to reconstruct their experiences in full, but we know enough to fuel the time machine of our imaginations.




[1] Charleston News and Courier (hereafter CNC), 12 August 1901, page 3, “Glimpse of the Pan-American.”

[2] Official Catalogue and Guide Book to the Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo, N.Y.: Charles Ahrhart, 1901), 46.

[3] CNC, 14 August 1901, page 4, “News of the Day.”

[4] For a more detailed examination of Hawaiian representation of this era, see Stacy L. Kamehiro, “Hawai’i at the World Fairs, 1867–1893,”

[5] CNC, 2 December 1901, page 19, “Exhibits and Concessions.”

[6] “Hawaii at the Exposition,” The Exposition, 1 (March 1901): 277–78.

[7] CNC, 28 July 1901, page 6, “Our Great Exposition,” reprinting an article by local writer Eola Willis published in the New York Herald, 7 June 1901.

[8] CNC, 2 December 1901, page 19, “Exhibits and Concessions.”

[9] Buffalo Courier, 4 November 1901, page 7, “Bustling Scenes on Dead Midway.”

[10] Charleston Evening Post (hereafter CEP), 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[11] Buffalo Courier, 22 November 1901, page 10, “Hawaiians Will Serenade President,” names twelve people (nine men, one boy, and two women) led by Joseph Puni who were destined for Charleston, while other sources from 1902 repeatedly give the number fourteen. The Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer, 2 May 1902, page 1, “Glee Club from Honolulu,” described the band as “ten men, one boy, and three women.” The Buffalo Courier, 18 January 1902, page 10, “Hawaiians’ Special Car Attracts Much Attention in Buffalo,” noted that twenty-five Hawaiians from the Pan-American expo had departed for San Francisco the previous day. Elements of that group performed as “the Hawaiian Glee Club” at a number of Midwestern cities en route to California. At the same moment, Puni’s band in the Southeast used the same name.

[12] CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[13] E. W. McConnell was identified as the proprietor of the Hawaiian Village in the Official Catalogue and Guide Book, 95. According to CNC, 2 October 1901, page 5, “Coming and Going,” McConnell checked into the Charleston Hotel on October 1st. In the Palmetto City, he was the proprietor of several midway concessions, including the cyclorama of “the Battle of Bull Run,” the “Moorish Palace,” and horror show “Darkness and Dawn”; see CNC, 12 November 1901, page 8, “Busy Days at the Ivory City.”

[14] CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[15] News and Observer [Raleigh, N.C.], 2 May 1902, page 1, “Glee Club from Honolulu,” describes an incident of racial confusion at the railway station in Goldsboro, N.C., where the band was placed in the ‘Jim Crow’ car before an outsider convinced officials that they Hawaiians should be moved to the white car.

[16] CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[17] CEP, 10 December 1901, page 1, “Hawaiian Singers Here.”

[18] CEP, 11 December 1901, page 1, “The Mayor Serenaded.”

[19] CNC, 14 December 1901, page 7, “A Jolly Set of Mariners.”; CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[20] CNC, 20 December 1901, page 9, “Will Astonish the City.”

[21] See CNC, 18 January 1902, page 10, “All Around Town,” and the brief advertisement in the same paper, page 3, under “Religious Notices.”

[22] CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[23] CEP, 28 April 1902, page 5, “Liliuokalani Coming”; CNC, 23 May 1902 (Friday), page 4, “The Engineers Come Tomorrow.”

[24] CNC, 24 May 1902, page 10, “At the Ivory City”; CNC, 6 July 1902, page 8, “Mr. John S. Knapp.”

[25] CEP, 9 December 1902, page 4, “Hawaiian Band Still Stranded.”

[26] For a detailed study of the influence of Hawaiian guitar on the vernacular music of the United States, see John Troutman, Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[27] Honolulu Advertiser, 10 December 1939, page 1, “Hawaiian Musician Home After 38 Years.”


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