A Hawaiian hero's reputation is restored — and a fitting memorial now marks his burial site

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In Kalihi, a shiny new headstone in a historic cemetery now marks the restoration of a man's reputation.

William Punohuaweoweoulaokalani White was considered Queen Liliuokalani's right hand man. A Lahaina senator, he helped author her new constitution during tumultuous times.

"She awarded him the Knights Order of Kalakaua for that. The Knights Order is the highest order that you can get in the kingdom," said Ron Williams, Jr., president of the Hawaiian Historical Society.

After the overthrow, though, his reputation was tarnished.

White was disparaged by English language newspapers, which where controlled by the provisional government run by elite businessmen.

They called him "Oily Bill," but Hawaiian language newspapers called him "Bill Aila" for his smooth voice. Aila is the Hawaiian word for oil.

"The English language newspapers picked that up and disparaged him and said he was a trickster, a snake oil salesman," said Williams.

Over the years, as fewer people could read Hawaiian newspapers, many Hawaiian heroes like William White — with his Caucasian sounding name — nearly vanished from history.

"To be honest, I kinda passed over him too because of that," said Williams.

Williams Jr. rediscovered White thanks to reading the Hawaiian newspapers, meetings with kupuna and 12 years of research.

It turns out, White was buried at Kaahumanu cemetery in Kalihi.

But he had no headstone — so a GoFundMe page was set up to raise $11,000.

"All of my friends said it would never work. We need somebody's house burning down. You need somebody dying. Nobody cares about history," Williams said.

But people did care.

The site raised the money in nine days and on Aug. 6 — White's birthday — more than 200 people, including White's family, attended a ceremony to unveil the new headstone for the Hawaiian hero.

"He gave us a way back to knowing how brilliant and how progressive and achieving the nation was," said Williams.

White's great-grandson, Doug, says previously the family didn't know much about him or where he was buried.

"We are really proud of our heritage," White said, "and it was such a pleasant surprise that he was modern day hero and did so much for our community."

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